Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 21st, 2020
White Noise (Daniel Lombroso, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
There is always a danger when making a film (or any nonfiction work) about problematic individuals whose views one may not agree with, but whose platforms one wishes to examine, that the showcasing of those views leads to their further propagation. Such was the narrow needle somewhat improperly threaded by Errol Morris in his recent American Dharma, a profile of Steve Bannon, where the filmmaker’s usual cleverness faltered in his attempt to profile and dissect, instead allowing his subject to pontificate at great length (the film still holds significant interest, however). Alison Klayman fared much better with her The Brink, also about Bannon, in which she held the man’s feet to a much hotter fire. One can argue what the role of a documentary director should be, and whether or not objectivity is a laudable goal in such endeavors, but I believe that racism and xenophobia are not worthy ideologies, and need to be called out, at all times.
In the new movie White Noise, former The Atlantic journalist Daniel Lombroso examines three significant figures in recent right-wing circles: Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern and Richard Spencer (contrary to my usual practice, I purposefully do not hyperlink to any information about them). His intentions appear noble (he opens with a James Baldwin quote, for example), yet his attempts at humanization ultimately do more than merely show us how anyone could be a bigot. Through an evenhandedness that is no doubt proper in journalistic circles, Lombroso all too often offers a seeming megaphone to his lead characters, even as he sometimes undercuts their power through contextualizing footage that reveals backstories, doubts and more. The thing is, I don’t want to feel sorry for Nazi-wannabe Spencer, nor cry a tear for the racist and misogynist Cernovich, nor waste sympathies on white-supremacist Southern as she develops even the slightest understanding of the urgency of feminist ideas. They already have an audience, and do not need additional viewers.
Still, the film is not without its appeal, as Lombroso’s approach guarantees access. By avoiding direct confrontation with his subjects, he is allowed to continue filming. But of what value is that material if it does not lead to any insights beyond the fact that these are sad, emotionally ruined individuals? The director never pushes hard with his questioning, leaving open the guesswork about why someone like Cernovich would marry an Iranian American woman (or she, him), or why Southern would also wed outside her racial group, which she has heretofore espoused as the superior one (nor does he ask her any kind of specifics). If you’re going to do a full portrait, explore contradictions in all their twisted glory, please.
By the end, we are left with many more unsolved mysteries and clues than solid answers. That is not always a bad thing, but here it might improve matters if we could understand more about the roots of the characters’ hate, beyond the facile reasons they give, and the why of their broad appeal. I’d also like to understand how the twentysomething college dropout that is Southern is granted an audience to screen a work-in-progress copy of an anti-immigration documentary to the European Parliament. Who is behind her? That is what we need to know, among other things. Instead, she, Cernovich and Spencer control the story, even in their dejected moments. Woe is me; my white star is falling. Listen to the noise of its descent. No, thank you.
Editor’s Note, 10/22/20:
When considering the context of director Daniel Lombroso’s work on the film, his recent The Atlantic article on Lauren Southern offers illuminating additional information on life among the right-wing agitators he profiles. While my overall feelings on the film remain mostly unchanged, there is no question that Lombroso’s commitment to exposing the lies of his subjects is genuine.