• Donald Trump has gained support on Hillary Clinton among US voters this week, a new poll shows. (AAP) (EPA)Source: EPA
US elections have long been fodder for documentarians seeking to shine a light onto both political process as well as the humanity of candidates and the strategists driving the campaigns.
3 Nov 2016 - 1:37 PM  UPDATED 3 Nov 2016 - 5:04 PM

It began with a humiliation. After months of attacking President Barack Obama over his birth certificate's whereabouts, Donald Trump sat in the audience of the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner as the President publicly humiliated the reality-show star. Trump sat in the room fuming as Obama questioned his credentials to participate in public political discourse. 

The new documentary, Clinton V Trump: The Choice, takes this moment and establishes it as the origin story for Trump's decision to run for President. "He was being treated like a Pinata," one commentator notes at the beginning of the program.

Viewers looking for a documentary that treats both candidates with what has come to be termed a 'false equivalency' will not find that here. The documentary, in a pursuit to understand the humanity that drives both candidates, instead paints a sobering picture of who the candidates are at their core. It cannot be said that both candidates come out of such scrutiny as equals.

Campaigns for the US presidency have been a regular source of interest for documentarians, with documentaries like Clinton v Trump: The Choice seeking to better voters understanding of candidates, along with others offering fly-on-the-wall insight into the campaigns. Here we explore five of the latter:


One of the earliest examples, Primary was a 1960 documentary film about the Wisconsin primary election between the man who would later be elected President John F. Kennedy and his opponent Hubert Humphrey as both sought the Democrat Party nomination. 

What makes the film such a notable historical relic is that it was produced at a time that saw a technological revolution underway in the industry. The filmmakers were equipped with mobile cameras, which allowed them to follow candidates through crowds of supporters and into intimate spaces like hotel rooms. For the first time viewers could see the faces of the candidates as they awaited the polling results. 

Medium Cool

This is strictly not a documentary, but upon its release the film was celebrated for its mix of fictional narrative combined with real-life footage of the riots at the 1968 Democrat convention. Shot in a cinema verite-style, Medium Cool explored themes of race, gender, poverty, crime, and war, but at the centre of the films narrative is the question of the duty of a filmmaker recording a historically revelant, but violent act. Should they intervene, or serve purely as documentarian?

The War Room

Probably the best known US political documentary is The War Room, which followed Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign. Unlike Primary, which is an important work for the access it gave the viewer to Kennedy, The War Room is interesting in how little focus is given to Clinton, but rather the film focuses on the back-room strategists that powered the campaign. James Carville and George Stephanopoulos are the subjects of the film, firmly establishing them as media personalities.  

Election Day

One of the more interesting aspects of the US electoral process is how different voting procedures are state-to-state. Unlike in Australia where a person voting in a high school in Geelong in Victoria is the same as a vote in a high school in Ascot in Queensland, US voters are dealing with different types of voting machines and systems that are determined at the state level. The simplicity of a pencil and paper just isn't embraced.

This 2004 documentary offers a snapshot look at voting in the US on the actual election day. Filmmaker Katy Chevigny fielded 14 film crews to capture the action in a diverse range of locations, including Chicago; the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota; Dearborn, Michigan; Cincinnati and Shaker Heights, Ohio; Orlando and Quincy, Florida; St Louis; New York; the little town of Sapulpa, Oklahoma; and the even tinier town of Stockholm, Wisconsin. 

Some good news: The documentary is available in full on SBS On Demand.


For six years filmmakers followed Republican candidate Mitt Romney up to his 2012 presidential election loss. Initially, filmmaker Greg Whiteley had intended to only cover the 2008 campaign, but instead continued on documenting Romney through his second attempt. While the humanity of the political candidate is laid bare, the documentary takes it further by also exploring the effect of the illness of Romney's wife who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. 

The Circus

Perhaps the next evolution of the political documentary, this is not a feature film, but rather an ongoing TV series that has sought to chronicle the 2016 Presidential race. Journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin are joined by Republican strategist Mark McKinnon as they talk with the candidates, strategists, and the press amid the political circus of a political campaign.

The first half of the series was interesting in watching the political machinations of the primary election process, but once each party nominated its candidates, the final episodes of the series have provided a fascinating insight into the party ideologies and how they have been questioned in the lead-up to the election.

Clinton v Trump: The Choice airs on SBS on Sunday 6 November at 8:35pm.

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