2020 was a pretty lousy year, all things considered, but the only nights I couldn’t sleep were those following the General Election. We were still early enough in the COVID pandemic that I wasn’t spending much time out of the house. The pattern we’d developed over the previous seven months was going strong. I wouldn’t say it was a happy pattern, but the consistency, amid everything else, had become comforting in a world gone mad. Armed with the consistency of routine, I promised myself I wouldn’t allow the same type of panic attack I had experienced in 2016 or 2018. I would take my usual walk. I would run an errand. I would come home, plug my phone in outside of the bedroom, and try to sleep early.
Why torture myself?
Like I said, the next few days and nights were pretty awful. I somehow lost 10 pounds that week. My Twitter feed filled with ballot-counting prognosticators. The outlook for Joe Biden was consistently good the entire time, but it took Philadelphia so damn long to count every precinct, and by that time, the Republican party had gone completely insane. Everything that eventually led to January 6, 2021, and our present tumultuous moment, was barreling full speed ahead. It wasn’t until several news outlets officially declared Biden the winner that I was able to sleep again. Relief. At last.
I liked Biden for pretty much the entire windup to the General Election. I thought he delivered good speeches and handled himself well. His record of personal growth and loyalty to his family over time spoke for itself. He was a good Vice President. Unlike other Democratic Party nominees, I thought he could actually win against an incumbent President. I was happy to vote for him. I’d vote for him again, although, like most people, his age does concern me.
It’s notable that This Land, a vérité documentary comprised of interviews and footage of regular Americans leading up to the 2020 election, doesn’t seem to feature anyone advocating for Biden. I don’t mention this because I feel defensive of Biden, insomuch as this is not the first, second or third chronicle of that year that ignores the utterly banal reality that Biden won the election in part by convincing everyday people to vote for him. Big-city reporters (often hailing from consistently Democratic dens) visiting Midwest diners to talk to “real folk” who saw a hero in Donald Trump — while ignoring a plurality of voters who despised him — has become a political-circle meme spanning Trump’s government career. This Land feels like an extension of that practice.
There are supporters who believe in the current President of the United States. There were people in 2020 who saw something they liked in him. You wouldn’t know it from this film. It’s a disservice to the historical record.
This Land represents a collage of different Americans from different walks of life, mostly discussing their political views in quick soundbites. The most prominent interviews are with a married gay couple on the verge of their 33rd anniversary; the white spouse is a liberal and the Black spouse is a die-hard Trump supporter. There’s also a man from a Trump-supporting family whose illegal immigrant wife was deported to Mexico without hope of return for a decade (and whose son was diagnosed with cancer soon afterward); a Trump-supporting rodeo family hit hard by COVID; a Native American recovering from addiction who wants nothing to do with white governance; a young Black woman who sees nothing for her in political participation. There are extended interviews with a family raising a young boy with Down Syndrome whom they chose not to abort and snippets with a woman who models plus-sized clothing under fire online by abusive, body-shaming men.
Director Matthew Palmer does a decent job gathering a diverse array of Americans and their stories, but in total it doesn’t feel like it amounts to much of a documentary about the 2020 General Election and the impact it had on the populace. Few of the interviews happened on or after Election Day. Only a few reactions to the result are shown. While the diversity of subjects is admirable, the film ultimately says very little about the tone and tenor of American politics circa 2020. It seems Palmer’s driving thought is that politics is exhausting for everyone.
The most we really get out of the characters is when Gregory — the Black Trump supporter — tells his spouse he’s become more right-wing because his in-laws are annoying liberals. That spouse worries about the man to whom he’s married and the way politics has changed him over the past half-decade. Gregory insists he was always conservative. There’s a lot to unpack in their partnership, but there is very little exploration of their more intimate thoughts and feelings. What does their dynamic say about the way the tone of modern politics has changed the country? How did it change after Election Night?
This Land is a tour of the same men and women we see on network news each night — not because they represent a large subsection of American life but because their animated support for Trump — or disaffection toward politics as a whole — is more interesting for filmmakers raised and educated in liberal environments than some voter pulling the lever for boring Uncle Joe. If you watched this film as a time capsule of that year, it would leave you with the impression that the country was mostly people who didn’t care about politics or people who, one way or another, felt strongly about Trump. That doesn’t feel like an accurate version of the world we knew, then, and it does a disservice to the world in which we currently live. The film concludes with someone musing, “We do the best we can,” but the overriding sense of the documentary is that the best way to handle politics is to tune out. That’s not the best we can do.