Yes, it’s hard to imagine wanting to watch 11/8/16 today. The film, a sweeping survey documentary created and produced by Jeff Deutchman, follows sixteen Americans from across the country on Election Day of 2016: a Sikh New York cabdriver; a “Dreamer” in San Jose, California; a Massachusetts dad in a MAGA hat; a West Virginia coal miner and his family; the assistant managing politics editor at the Los Angeles Times. They vote, go to work, and look somewhat relieved, no matter who they voted for. The campaign season had been soiling and protracted, and at long last everything would be returning to normal.
Then they settle in to watch the results. All expect it to be an early night.
What unfolds, of course, is a slow-burning psychological horror story, a portrait of a country in the moment its people all finally understood just what they were capable of. This minute-by-minute rundown is priceless history, alive with the anxious textures of American life right then, a film that in twenty years will reward attentive viewing. It’s also, for many of us alive in the now, probably too much too soon, the tearing open of wounds that only are just starting to scab over. People whom I’ve described the film to have said, “Oh, no,” or “Why would I want to relive that?” Watching the faces of these men and women watching the news is to reinhabit that night yourself, to be ground again through all that you might have felt. Once Florida goes red, a union leader in Pennsylvania, so confident all day long that his candidate would win in a landslide, claps a couple of African American workers on the shoulders at a bar and says something about how it’s going to be even harder tomorrow to be black in America. Everyone laughs, but it’s not clear he’s joking. The president of the college Democrats at Kent State worries that she might throw up and says, with wet eyes, “I can’t focus on anything. I’m just — really scared.”
Also tearful — and prayerful — are immigrants’ right activists in San Jose, especially a couple that expects to be split up under a President Trump: “A certain person doesn’t want us here,” says a man who has been in this country for decades. “There will be a rupture, a separation. Whether we like it or not, that’s going to break up our family.”
One above-it-all lefty dude, an artist in Kingston, New York, has scoffed all day to the camera that voting doesn’t matter, that the election will be inconsequential, that the system will still be corrupt no matter who wins. But remember what they say about atheism in a foxhole. Once Hillary Clinton seems to be losing, he keeps insisting that what’s happening isn’t happening, repeating the previous day’s conventional wisdom as something like a mantra: “She’s gonna win Pennsylvania, and it’s gonna be the firewall.” His girlfriend, meanwhile, weeps. Earlier, before the first results came in, the filmmakers captured a phone conversation with the young woman’s father in which she’s already despairing: “I think Donald Trump is the president we deserve. I think we’re a bunch of racist, misogynistic, divided hateful people.” Her father, like her boyfriend, assures her that her fears won’t come true. “There’s a general sense of decency in America,” he begins, as she stammers in disbelief.
Like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, that young woman is the only person in the film who seems to know what’s really happening. Even the Trump supporters, at the start of the day, have accepted the inevitability of his loss, and most can’t quite bring themselves to express to the cameras full-throated endorsement of their man. “I am voting against Hillary, but I do like a lot of the things that Donald Trump says,” a man in Miami tells us. Then he catches himself: “You know, not the things he said, the foul language or anything like that.” The coal miner believes Trump will be good for his industry and for West Virginia in general, but notes, “I’m a firm believer in ‘treat people the way you want to be treated.’ I think he needs to have more respect.” His teen daughter, lying on the couch, notes that Trump is clearly in “over his head.”
The Massachusetts dude in the MAGA hat worries about higher taxes and says that Hillary only cares about her own pockets. “I’m doing OK for myself right now, but it would be even that much better” if Trump wins, he says, diplomatically. His wife snaps back, “Take that stupid hat off.” She votes for Trump, too, though she notes that she worries about “his mouth.” Later, in the car, her husband will explain to her that the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against their candidate are obviously fake: “I don’t think a guy like Trump needs to rape a woman. The guy’s got so much money, it doesn’t matter.”
For most of the day and the film, these guys speak the way that white Trump supporters always tend to when talking to reporters: Their concerns are economic or they’re sick of Clintonian cronyism and corruption. But as the Democrats and liberals across the country collapse, and as the top editors at the Los Angeles Times prep their “Stunning Trump Victory” cover, these Trump voters break from their script. Perhaps they’re feeling emboldened. When Van Jones says, on CNN, that he’s getting texts from Muslim friends asking if they should flee the country, the coal miner’s wife yells at the TV: “If they’re terrified enough that they have to ask the question, ‘Should I leave this country?’ then they should not be in this country.” Her family members express agreement.
And in solidly blue Massachusetts, that MAGA dude, a loving and attentive father, exults. “I know that someone’s at the helm of this country that loves our people. That loves our country. That’s not going to import tens of thousands of Muslim people that hate our country.”
He seems to realize that doesn’t sound good, so he attempts, in a Trumpish way, to take some of it back. “I don’t have anything against Muslim people, you know — Muhammad Ali was a Muslim.”
He adds that there’s a lot of good Muslims, though he can’t think of any “right offhand.”
Then he takes a breath and continues: “And the border, with Mexico…”
This goes on for a while.
11/8/16’s title recalls the Stephen King novel 11/22/63, about the Kennedy assassination, suggesting that this is a date that future generations will remember, the point at which timelines diverged. There’s no document like this film for any of those other American days that we’ll all remember: how discomfiting and revealing to see precisely what we were in the moment everything certain fell away. I look forward to revisiting it years from now. At the moment, though, it plays less like a movie to watch today than a message in a bottle, pleading for help, that I hope reaches the set-things-right time travelers of the far future.