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Frontline takes on biggest story line in American life with 'Trump's Showdown'

In Trump’s Showdown, Frontline examines President Trump’s fight against the investigation of his campaign. With the threat of impeachment growing, the film chronicles Trump as he wages an unprecedented war against the Special Counsel, the FBI, and even his own attorney general.
In Trump’s Showdown, Frontline examines President Trump’s fight against the investigation of his campaign. With the threat of impeachment growing, the film chronicles Trump as he wages an unprecedented war against the Special Counsel, the FBI, and even his own attorney general. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

There is no bigger story in American life than Trump v. Mueller.

Virtually every other narrative in 2018 is a spinoff of this one involving the president of the United States and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who started out investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election but has now extended his inquiry into multiple areas of Donald Trump’s presidency and life.

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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the firing line? Spinoff. Even the rush to try to get Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court before the midterms is a spinoff for fear that a Democratic-controlled House will use Mueller’s findings to start impeachment proceedings.

The battle is epic, if not mythic, in terms of what the two central figures represent of the American character.

One is all about private gain for him and his family, while the other has led a life of public service. One is always talking away somewhere in the media, if not at rallies or press conferences, then on Twitter. His talk is regularly ill informed and even reckless. The other has said barely a public word since the investigation started. And when he does speak, it is in a voice of legal precision and rectitude. One flaunts the rule of law. The other seeks to enforce it.

Their confrontation could well decide the future of the republic — at least, short term. And they are, as the title of an engrossing two-hour Fontline documentary claims, closing in on a showdown.

Few in the media understand this narrative better than Michael Kirk, co-producer, director and co-writer of “Trump’s showdown,” who described the situation in an interview Wednesday as a “titantic struggle of historic proportions” and an “amazing moment in our democracy.”

A veteran practitioner of long-form, nonfiction storytelling, Kirk deftly communicates the chaotic, helter-skelter feel of Trump’s Washington from the opening montage of jagged images, angled screens, Washington buildings filmed in handheld fashion at night and a cacophony of newscaster voices talking about the presidency.

If you are impressed with the opening on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” you need to see the way Kirk elevates that approach here.

The images that rush at you and the voices that assault your ears are in perfect sync to deliver a visceral sense of what it feels like to be in the midst of the Trump storm in what has come to be known as Crazytown since White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was quoted in Bob Woodward’s best-selling “Fear” saying of Trump, “He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.”

Woodward got the quote, but Kirk will make you feel it in your gut two minutes into the film. Really, two minutes. I ran the clock.

Amid the surging video of the montage, Kirk sets up the showdown at the heart of his film through the strategic placement of black-and-white, portrait-style head shots of Trump and Mueller looking like ancient Roman senators. On the audio track, talking heads set the political stage.

“Bob Mueller cares about one thing,” one voice says, “indicting bad guys and putting them in prison.”

“”Trump has been waging war on the whole idea that there is such a thing as independent justice,” another says.

“And he doesn’t care about collateral damage,” a third adds ominously.

The film starts two weeks before Trump’s inauguration with the four top U.S. intelligence chiefs coming to New York to tell the president-elect “that his election may have been compromised by Russian interference,” according to the film’s narration.

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At the end of that meeting, then FBI Director James Comey stayed behind to give Trump another bit of information sure to make him angrier than he allegedly already was: There is a dossier that had been prepared by a former British spy and paid for in part by Democratic money that includes information about alleged sexual activity by Trump on a trip to Moscow. The intelligence chiefs fear the information could be used to try to compromise Trump.

And so, this saga begins with Trump becoming paranoid and more alienated from the intelligence community by the day until he fires Comey, which results in the naming of the special prosecutor.

The events set in motion in January 2017 and recounted in this film continue to explode and rattle through the country on what seems like an almost daily basis.

I screened the film last Saturday, the day after The New York Times published a bombshell story saying Rosenstein had offered to wear a secret recording device in meeting with Trump, and discussed the 25th Amendment as a means to remove the president. This was in the immediate wake of Trump using a memo from Rosenstein to justify the firing of Comey.

The story came under immediate attack, with some saying Rosenstein was merely being sarcastic about wearing a wire, and didn’t really mean it. Rosenstein offered a carefully worded denial that didn’t actually rebut what the Times said.

But after watching this film with its excellent exploration of Rosenstein’s jangled state of mind after Trump made him the fall guy for Comey’s firing, the description of the deputy attorney general’s behavior in the Times last week seemed on the money.

The mini-biography of Rosenstein was on the money, too. What it told me about Rosenstein’s actions in the wake of Comey’s firing provided the kind of context I needed to make an informed judgment about the controversial Times story last week. It was one of several mini-biographies Kirk uses in the documentary to provide layers of depth to the players in this drama.

“Trump’s Showdown” is as good as long-form, non-fiction television gets. It is the kind of production that puts Frontline in the front ranks of TV journalism far above any other news production on PBS.

This is journalism intended to give viewers facts, narrative and context they can use to make informed decisions in their lives.

“The thing that we keep feeling is the ticking clock of the midterm elections that are coming,” Kirk said when asked what he and his team were trying to accomplish with this film.

He said that whether someone is for or against Trump, they need to know “every detail of this history” from the events surrounding the firing of Comey to what’s happening today with such Mueller-indicted members of Team Trump as Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.

“This film serves as a reminder that before Mueller acts and before we really know if there’s been an obstruction of justice or collusion from the perspective of the special counsel, there is going to be an election. And it’s going to be five weeks from when this program airs,” he added.

“We’ve always thought of it as our mandate to help people be smarter when they walk into the ballot box or maybe be motivated to go into the ballot box with an understanding of what is actually happening,” Kirk said. “We hope the film is a primer on what the great moments in this battle have been so far. So that when they vote, they can vote on the basis of what they know rather than prejudices or what they feel or what they’ve read on Twitter.”

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