Dossier

Smoke and Mirrors: The Bio-Con Documentary in the Age of Trump

Marc Francis

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2020, Volume 74, Number 1

Back in 2016, when Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, there was considerable public discussion about whether or not he would be able to govern by trafficking in the same falsehoods and public prejudices that he peddled as a candidate. To much horror and dismay, four years later, he has proven unequivocally that he can. Popular film and television have answered this mass erosion of truth and justice with narratives about powerful deceivers and sophists. Some, such as festival hit Bad Education (Cory Finley, 2019) and Ryan Murphy’s The Politician (2019–), are vehicles for political commentary, while others, such as Evan Peters’s story line in Pose (2018–), directly link to Trump.1 No fiction, though, has yet to offer as cohesive and relevant a response to the Trump era as the recent cycle of documentaries that I would term the “bio-con” (biographical con) documentary.

The bio-con documentary zeroes in on one notorious figure—a fraud—the unveiling of whose scheme occupies multiple national news cycles and is therefore ready-made for an extended investigation. Some popular and emblematic examples of the bio-con documentary released theatrically, televisually, or via streaming services recently include Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Chris Smith, 2019), Fyre Fraud (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, 2019), The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (Alex Gibney, 2019), Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes (Alexis Bloom, 2018), Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Matt Tyrnauer, 2019), and Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (Ivy Meeropol, 2019). And this is not even an exhaustive list of contemporary bio-con documentaries.2

Different in form and scope, the documentaries all derive their ethical pertinence and exigency from the current US political context.3 More specifically, the bio-con documentary employs its notorious main subject as a proxy for Trump. Like Trump, Billy McFarland of Fyre Festival infamy and Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos obtained investors by lying about their products and output; Roger Ailes of Fox News built a media empire by constantly deceiving and misleading the public; Roy Cohn routinely lobbed false accusations against adversaries in order to wield power. Bio-con documentaries all track the egotistical self-construction of entrepreneurs and big shots who continually con others to advance their careers and positions.

Fittingly, bio-con documentaries capitalize on the true-crime genre currently in vogue.4 Though Trump’s 2016 election did not initiate the genre’s emergent ubiquity—it exploded, arguably, with the podcast Serial (Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder) in 2014—his presidency has led documentarians and filmmakers to pursue the theme of scamming. HBO’s docuseries McMillion$ (James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, 2020) on the Monopoly scam and the docuseries Dirty Money (2018), produced by Alex Gibney and Netflix, chronicling a number of corruption scandals with a Trump finale, exemplify this turn. Four years into the Trump administration, a cycle devoted solely to the theme of conning has developed, with bio-con documentaries among its most acclaimed constituents.

Along with their shared theme of corporate subterfuge, bio-con documentaries bear another resemblance so obvious that it’s almost easy to overlook: they are all profiles of powerful, malignant individuals. If the powerful individuals examined in the bio-con are meant to serve as proxies for Trump, to narrate and thereby help viewers comprehend corruption in a condensed and coherent form, the question is whether such narrative expediency is politically efficacious. The criminal mind under dissection may be intended as a metonym for broader socio-technological problems, but instead the socio-technological conditions that engendered these figures and from which they benefitted are subordinated to the narrative appeal of enthralling personae.

Consequently, these films risk trivializing their own significance in terms of what their stories have to say about problems with the American penal system, social-media infrastructures, labor and exploitation, gender inequity, and the erosion of the real. It is not that they intentionally distract viewers from these issues; their topics are timely, and the modes by which they reveal each figure’s misdeeds tend to be prudent and well informed. The films become clearly pro-truth, critical of capitalism or neoliberalism, and yet, troublingly, they deploy their lead subjects as “hooks” to captivate their audiences, just as reputable news sources began to default to using Trump as clickbait.5 In her brilliant White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech of 2018, Michelle Wolf reprimanded journalists for their focus: “Did you use to date [Trump]? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. … You helped create this monster and now you are profiting off of him.”6

To an extent, the bio-con documentary is guilty of the same behavior. The Fyre documentaries and The Inventor, and to a lesser degree Divide and Conquer and Where’s My Roy Cohn?, continually slide between positioning their main subject as a microcosm for the social and technological ills of their times and as an object of fascination. Such slippages reveal the extent to which the American public is unable today to separate urgent political questions from the cult of personality in a postdemocracy United States—a dangerous weakness that can, in the political realm, quickly lead to fascism.

The documentary, as a cinematic, televisual, and now web-based mode historically associated with revelation and truth telling, would seemingly be apposite to the subject matter of fraud. But the bio-con documentary’s true aim is not revelation. By the time the documentaries are released, their main subjects’ fraudulent schemes have already been disclosed to the public via news outlets, social media, and word of mouth. These bio-con documentaries aim to reveal not the “what” but the “how” and “why” of their subjects—an emphasis with its own investigative structures. The films seem to put their subjects on the proverbial witness stand only to pillory them with ridicule.7 One intended response may well be a schadenfreude in which a figure’s fall from grace is all the more potent and pleasurable for the targeted average middle-class viewer precisely because it is a “true story” told with real-life footage.8 Like the iconic and enduring docuseries on fame and misfortune E! True Hollywood Story (E!, 1996–), bio-con documentaries seduce the viewer by unearthing the wild, unpredictable turns and bizarre details of a criminal scandal. In their most sordid moments, they fall into a National Enquirer style; in their most investigative, a true-crime documentary.

Bio-con documentaries share several structural properties: they are all told retrospectively, looking back on the rise and fall of a powerful—always white—business leader after the fact. Interviews, set mostly in nondescript yet sleek office spaces, with employees, collaborators, and investors who were all hoodwinked or abused by the central figure constitute the dominant format. This chorus of testimony offers juicy firsthand knowledge, details, and analyses that translate into documentary evidence.9 Crucially, these insiders also collectively attest to the boss’s evil genius and its effect on them.

Elizabeth Holmes, as interviewed by Errol Morris.

Better antecedents for the bio-con documentary can be found in the early work of Errol Morris and Alex Gibney, which elevated true crime within the documentary tradition.10 Over time, both directors normalized a documentary approach that might be best characterized as “obsessive biography,” paving the way for documentarians to become observing psychologists drawn toward the mystery of fraudster psychology. The suspense in films such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005) and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003) emanates in part from the directors’ probing of their main subjects’ deepest motives, fears, and felonious dispositions.11

Intriguingly, Gibney incorporates Morris’s promotional interview footage with Elizabeth Holmes in The Inventor in a moment of convergence—a palimpsest—in which two obsessive biographers are drawn to the same figure, with ostensibly different motives. Gibney, aware that she is his selling point, shrouds Holmes in a sociopathic feminine mystique, casting her as the tech industry’s femme fatale. A Silicon Valley riff on Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder, 1992), she has no personality of her own, so she replicates Steve Jobs, even ripping off his signature black turtleneck. One interviewee says Holmes never blinks—a trait that the viewer witnesses transpire for a drawn-out, eerie length of time in one interview. Holmes then is cast not only as a zealot, but as clearly deranged. Gibney thereby underpins a true-crime structure with a palpable layer of horror.

Andrew Jarecki’s hit docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO, 2015), a true-crime biographical documentary with overtones of horror, laid the groundwork for the biographical to merge with the theme of conning.12 This series tracks the many murders and alter egos of multimillionaire Robert Durst. Director and producer Jarecki had earlier made a fictional film, All Good Things (2010), loosely based on Durst’s wife’s murder (starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst) and made no secret of his long obsession with Durst. His interviews with Durst in The Jinx encourage the viewer to make connections between Durst’s childhood, his actions, and his implied justifications for murders that he denies committing. At the end of the series (spoiler alert), Durst mutters a confession over a hot mic while alone in the bathroom, putting this enduring con job to rest.

The Jinx invites its audience to be consumed with the psyche of a person driven to lie, cheat, and kill. Stella Bruzzi asserts that true-crime series like The Jinx position the viewer as a juror deliberating the case laid out before them. But The Jinx, not unlike bio-con documentaries, also asks the viewer to play criminal psychologist, going beyond deliberating and adjudicating the case at hand to speculate on and identify the type of person—singular, deviant, or troublingly ordinary—that could do such a thing. A majority of true-crime stories tend to prioritize, narratively and thematically, a single criminal mind, though it’s not necessarily their defining element. These films, docuseries, and podcasts are meant to take the viewer or listener deep into the “mind of a murderer” (to borrow a Discovery Channel title) or, more broadly, the mind of a psychopath.

The prevalence of true crime correlates roughly with the rise of biographies within the field of popular documentary. In 2016, eight of the fourteen Sundance documentary premieres were biographies of famous and influential people, mostly in the media and the arts.13 “Bio-docs” such as Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015) and RBG (Julie Cohen and Betsy West, 2018) have become guaranteed Oscar bait and commercially viable. Biography and true crime, once designated as cable-TV filler, have now merged, providing an easier and more profitable way to narrate white-collar crime and, by implication, the Trump presidency.

Unlike true crime’s general penchant for violent crime, bio-con documentaries underscore white-collar crimes (mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, embezzlement) or at least misconduct. It is this white-collar focus that makes the bio-con documentary so fitting for the criminal moment of Donald Trump’s presidency. Though dogged by speculation that his net wealth is just piles of debt and that his political position is entangled illegally with his businesses, Trump continually evades investigation. The American public is reminded almost weekly of blocked or stalled investigations that emphasize the country’s deeply flawed and biased criminal-justice system, frozen in the face of white-collar offenses.

In Fyre Fraud, Billy McFarland is interviewed in a vacant office space, a visual convention of the documentary.

Michael Hobbes calls the present “the Golden Age of White Collar Crime,” defined by a deregulation of financial institutions stretching back beyond the Obama administration but now reaching its zenith.14 “Federal investigators go after media punching bags like … Billy McFarland to make the public think criminal prosecutions are routine. They’re not,” he laments, revealing that less than 3 percent of millionaires were audited in 2017. No wonder Netflix and Hulu viewers turned to Fyre Fraud and Fyre for a kind of catharsis and a (false) reassurance that there is justice in the world. If the McFarlands, the Holmeses, Cohns, and Aileses of the world can get what they deserve in the end, perhaps Trump will, too, if only on-screen. McMillion$ helps identify the bio-con documentary as a distinct cycle because, despite the docuseries’s timely theme of fraudulence, it presents a cast of characters with no Trump proxy, and none are white-collar.

Fyre and Fyre Fraud chart a hubristic downfall of psychopathic proportions centered on executive Billy McFarland. Wesley Morris usefully nailed their differences: “Fyre is an ethics thriller. Fyre Fraud is a behavioral farce.”15 Netflix’s Fyre (directed by Chris Smith, who also codirected The Yes Men) tightly tracks the Fyre Festival’s development and unraveling like a suspenseful procedural, with the egomaniacal McFarland at the center. But at the edges is a much more important story: the Bahamians who were employed by the Fyre team and left uncompensated for their labor and provisions. Their testimonies narrate an unending paradigm of postcolonial exploitation that has a long history in the Caribbean and continues today, most conspicuously with tourism industries.

Hulu’s Fyre Fraud unreels in accordance with its filmmakers’ decision to interview McFarland. By providing an opportunity for McFarland to answer to his lies, the documentary makes him all the more dimensional for the viewer. McFarland may be the locus of the film’s drama, but he is bookended by illuminating commentaries on millennial online consumption—a damaging mixture of affectation and debt. Fyre Fraud, albeit briefly, takes this analysis further: it analogizes millennials investing in glossy online scams to Trump supporters who take his tweets and Fox News commentary at face value. Fyre Fraud gets marginally closer to a broader analysis than Fyre because it frames its main figure not just as a pathological liar or singular grifter but as a human embodiment of power and money.

In contrast, Divide and Conquer provides a Baudrillardian framing that the other bio-con documentaries lack. Divide and Conquer compellingly illustrates how Roger Ailes engineered not only the contemporary GOP strategy but also the Trump presidency itself. Such a bold argument is analogous to the one that James Poniewozik makes in his book Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, in which he describes Trump’s long-term scheme to convert the successful-businessman simulation that was his persona into a political fabrication that masses of people would buy into. Ailes in a way, too, “achieved symbiosis with the medium” of television, transforming his channel into a polished, relentless falsehood machine.16 Lamenting the loss of “the real” as society once knew it, Jean Baudrillard warned readers that the ability to recognize material realities of existence was receding, leaving in its wake a world in which belief and knowledge could be based only on how things are sold, branded, or mediated.17 Is there a better way to describe Fox News, as well as Theranos, Fyre, and the terrorizing legal force that was Roy Cohn?

Promotional material for Where’s My Roy Cohn? presents Cohn as evil and ruthless.

Though Divide and Conquer and Where’s My Roy Cohn? do slip into psychological intrigue, they capture the gravitas of mass deception because of their protagonists’ direct ties to Trump and the Republican Party. Their accounts of powerful manipulation may lack the thriller structure of Fyre and The Inventor, but they add the chill of horror to true crime. Frighteningly, Where’s My Roy Cohn? reveals that Cohn took a young Trump under his tutelage in the seventies, advising him: always deny, deflect, and insult. It is eerie how well it worked for Cohn for most of his career—and, alas, for his protégé and now the entire GOP. Juxtapose the tonal and biographical implication of Where’s My Roy Cohn? with the ironically more palatable, if not sympathetic, portrait in Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, directed by the granddaughter of Cohn’s first high-profile victims, the Rosenbergs. All three offer a glimpse of how Cohn’s and Ailes’s influence continues, spewing into the public sphere like a toxic-waste spill, polluting any sense of decency and truth.

All these documentaries struggle to address adequately the implications of their subjects. John Corner has argued that biography within documentary can broaden an audience’s “understanding of … history, politics, science or public affairs … [moving] outwards into the historiographical or the sociological.”18 However, the bio-con documentary can only partially fulfill that mandate, for biography used as a pretext for sensationalism risks falling into exploitation. I would suggest that the bio-con documentaries whose subjects are directly linked to Trump get closer to addressing what is politically at stake in a postdemocracy United States than those with subjects who are younger, flashier, and tied to the social media of new generations that can easily distract from the high political stakes of the era.

Ultimately, bio-con documentaries offer viewers little insight into the connection between falsity and fascism—a link in dire need of discussion and updating. The psychology of the autocrat has long fascinated historians, but the price of fixating on the aberrant psychology of an autocrat rather than their means of manipulating the masses is ongoing deception. Perhaps the challenge for documentarians today is to revivify the public’s ability to recognize “fascism” whatever its disguise. Otherwise, documentarians are in danger of fighting smoke and mirrors with nothing but hot air.

Notes

1. I would also point to the villain Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far from Home (Jon Watts, 2019), who can control people’s perceptions by spontaneously creating virtual reality spaces with projection devices. The Good Fight (CBS, 2017–) provides endless parallels and intersections. After Truth (Andrew Rossi, 2020) and The Great Hack (Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, 2019) focus on the tech industry and its participation in anti-truth campaigns. Kanopy also offers a subset of related documentaries on Trump and the post-truth era, including Post Truth Times: We the Media (Héctor Carré, 2017), Trump: My New President (David Muntaner, 2017), and The Great White Hoax (Jeremy Earp, 2017).
2. Amanda Hess refers to this wave as an “all-weather ‘scam season.’?” See Amanda Hess, “Fyre Festival, Theranos and Our Never-Ending ‘Scam Season,’?” New York Times, January 30, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/arts/fyre-festival-billy-mcfarland-elizabeth-holmes-anna-delvey.html.
3. My chosen examples are distinctly American, making Trump the most likely target. Though I do not analyze these bio-con documentaries’ relations to US law, national identity, industries, or history in particular, these aspects contribute to why I consider them distinctly American, and therefore as comments on Trump regardless of their ostensible subjects.
4. Netflix shows such as Wild Wild Country (Maclain Way and Chapman Way, 2018) and Making a Murderer (Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, 2015) have burrowed into the zeitgeist, establishing true crime as a lucratively addictive serial form.
5. There have been spatters of self-critique in journalism. For example, this mea culpa: Margaret Sullivan, “Trump Has Played the Media like a Puppet. We’re Getting Better—but History Will Not Judge Us Kindly,” Washington Post, April 28, 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/trump-has-played-the-media-like-a-puppet-were-getting-better–but-history-will-not-judge-us-kindly/2020/04/28/e709b1cc-88c6-11ea-ac8a-fe9b8088e101_story.html.
6. Bizarrely, on observed holidays, the news media almost seems to honor Trump with the attention he so craves. For example, CNN rang in 2020 with an article titled “Donald Trump’s 199 Wildest Lines of 2019.” And Politico celebrated Valentine’s Day with a piece headlined “Sex, Lies and Prenups! Donald Trump’s Timeless Wisdom on Love,” accompanied by an embroidery-like image of Trump surrounded by tiny hearts; see http://www.politico.com/interactives/2020/donald-trump-love-advice-valentines-day/. Such examples pinpoint how the press “cutify” the authoritarian.
7. The Great Hack, which shares some elements with the bio-con documentary, turns its attention to Brittany Kaiser, the former director and wunderkind of Cambridge Analytica. Instead of pillorying her, the documentary redeems her as she becomes a whistleblower virtually before the camera. It is a peculiar case in this overall trend toward biography, perhaps optimistic or utopian in its view of whistleblowing.
8. For Stella Bruzzi, the audience in true-crime documentaries serves as a jury of sorts, deliberating on the evidence presented on-screen. She refers to legal scholar Jessica Silbey’s term “evidence verité” to denote documentary film footage that has a distinct effect of the real on the viewer as actual or figurative juror. For more, see Stella Bruzzi, “Making a Genre: The Case of the Contemporary True Crime Documentary,” Law and Humanities 10, no. 2 (July 2, 2016): 249–80.
9. Hulu and Netflix were able to release similar Fyre Festival documentaries simultaneously, in part because each offered its own distinct cast of informants.
10. In 2015, IndieWire posted an annotated list, “9 Must-See Documentaries about the Art of the Con,” that only incidentally correlated with Trump’s imminent political ascent; it was actually meant to promote the documentary Art and Craft (Sam Cullman, Mark Becker, and Jennifer Grausman, 2014), about art forger Mark Landis. For the complete list, see http://www.indiewire.com/2015/01/9-must-see-documentaries-about-the-art-of-the-con-66571/.
11. Some might argue that Morris’s 2019 biographical documentary on Steve Bannon, American Dharma, is the nightmarish apex of this method.
12. Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, known for its contemporary horror hits, served, fittingly, as executive producer.
13. For the full list, see http://www.sundance.org/blogs/news/premieres-spotlight-sundance-kids-and-special-events-announced-for-2016-festival.
14. Michael Hobbes, “The Golden Age of White Collar Crime,” Highline, February 10, 2020, http://www.huffpost.com/highline/article/white-collar-crime/.
15. Wesley Morris, “‘Fyre’ and ‘Fyre Fraud’ Reviews: Behind the Scenes of a Music Festival Fiasco,” New York Times, January 16, 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/16/movies/fyre-reviews.html.
16. James Poniewozik, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America (New York: Liveright, 2019), xvi.
17. Then, Baudrillard’s prescient observations were seemingly exhausted in media theory; in contrast, they are lacunae in today’s theories of virtuality and falsity. See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
18. John Corner, “Biography within the Documentary Frame: A Note,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 43, no. 1 (2002): 96.