Incendiary documentary profile of Donald Trump’s divisive former advisor Roger Stone
Dir/scr: Christoffer Guldbrandsen. Denmark. 2023. 97mins
He is described by some as ’the cockroach of US politics’, by others as a serial liar. Others laud him as a hero and a true patriot. Donald Trump describes him as “a tough cookie.” But the truth about Roger Stone, flamboyant Republican lord of misrule and Trump’s long-time ally and former advisor – and truth is a relative term here – is more complex. Christoffer Guldbrandsen’s gripping political portrait, which was shot on and off over three years, captures the combination of toxicity and raffish charm, duplicity and candour that makes Stone such an influential (and to liberal minds at least) dangerous figure on the US political landscape. It’s a remarkable, at times terrifying, film. And, set against the potential for another Trump presidential campaign in 2024, it is an important one.
What elevates it to essential viewing is the account it gives of Stone’s contribution to the January 6th attack on the Capitol
Political journalist Guldbrandsen’s previous work includes the television documentaries Stealing Africa and The President. But this project, which combines fly-on-the-wall coverage with a participatory element (Guldbrandsen provides a narration and is a supporting character in the story) is a step up in terms of ambition and, as becomes clear in the film, challenges. The level of access is remarkable. It may come at the expense of an aggressive interrogation of Stone and his motives, but it seems to be a price worth paying. It’s a buzzy title, compelling and chilling in equal measure, and should be a key documentary of interest to both festivals and distributors.
We are introduced to Stone in his Florida home, complacently sucking on a monstrous cigar. He had his first cigar, he says, at the age of seven, when he was running the Republican State Conference. He’s so convincing that we almost believe him. And here’s one of the key things we learn from the film: Roger Stone lies easily.
What is less certain – and what we rather wish Guldbrandsen was in a position to ask – is just how much of what he says, in rousing rhetoric designed to stir the blood, he actually believes. But Stone is someone who views questions as attacks (“Do I tell you how to make Danish films?” he yells at one point. “No! So don’t tell me about American politics.”), and the success of the film relies on Guldbrandsen’s ability to loiter on the fringes of Stone’s inner circle.
It’s not a comfortable place to be. Guldbrandsen’s decision to include himself as a character is important – through his interactions with his subject, we see Stone as a marginally more sympathetic character as opposed to the vaudeville villain persona he presents to the wider world. But we also witness the considerable cost of this proximity. At one point, Stone abruptly switches allegiance to a rival documentary crew. Guldbrandsen is stricken and stressed out; shortly before he is due to fly back to the US to attempt to continue the project, the director suffers a cardiac arrest. The footage of this, captured on the security camera of his gym, is included in the film. In other circumstances, it might seem like a prurient diversion. But in this film, it makes absolute sense. There’s a high stakes, ride-or-die bravado to Stone’s persona, something which takes an inevitable toll on those around him.
As a character study alone, the film is a fascinating watch. But what elevates it to essential viewing is the account it gives of Stone’s contribution to the January 6th Capitol attack, as a key architect of the ‘stop the steal’ campaign. Division and violence are seeded in every statement he makes, from public assertions that the election is a choice between “light and dark; the godly and the godless; good and evil” to private jokes about “shoot a liberal for Christ day.”
The dumb muscle of the American far right – the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers – eats up the message and embarks on a steroidal star-spangled rampage. Meanwhile Stone, denied his chance to take to the stage because of last-minute White House treachery, watches from a Washington hotel room. The camera is there when Stone realises he needs to get out of town, as a matter of urgency. And it’s there when Stone vents his fury over Trump’s betrayal to a colleague in a scalding torrent of vitriol and violent threats. Then he turns to the camera and comments, “Obviously, if you use any of that, I’ll murder you.” It’s one of the rare instances where we almost believe him.
Production company: Guldbrandsen Film
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Producer: Christoffer Guldbrandsen, Peter Engel, Henrik Veileborg
Cinematography: Frederik Marbell
Editing: Malene Lykke Dreyer, Andreas Jonsson Hay
Music: Mikkel Maltha, Anthony Lledo, Flemming Nordkrog