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‘Stormy’ Review: At SXSW, a Documentary About the Stormy Daniels Saga Wonders Where the Outrage Is

“Where’s the outrage?” That’s the theme that underlies just about every news report on Donald Trump, and nearly every documentary that spins around him. That would include “Stormy,” a reasonably absorbing film that presents the Stormy Daniels saga from Daniels’ point-of-view, revealing her to be a compelling and highly conflicted figure. The movie, which premiered tonight at SXSW (it drops on Peacock on March 18), replays the scandal with a kind of breathless, furrowed-brow, tabloid-meets-serious-news propulsive documentary “excitement.” It casts Stormy Daniels as a liberal folk hero, a soldier in the culture wars, and a post-MeToo tabloid-ready figurehead of the resistance (even though she is, in fact, a red-state Republican). The whole intention of the movie is to stoke the outrage.

Yet somehow, the outrage is never quite there — or, rather, it’s there in a film like “Stormy,” but it’s never where it’s supposed to be, which is in the hearts of the people who look at Donald Trump’s transgressions, his crimes and outrages, and react with numb indifference, even as the rest of us are going: How does he keep getting away with it?

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There are answers to that, and some of those answers are not the ones that liberals want to hear — notably Trump’s preeminence as a fire-breathing entertainer, and how that quality has made him a paragon of power in an America that’s become a kind of National Entertainment State. (I glaze my mind over with streaming content, therefore I am.) Neil Postman’s visionary 1985 book was entitled “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and the truth is that even those of us who hate Trump have colluded, to a degree, in creating an America where the most entertaining candidate wins.

The Stormy Daniels saga, revolving around Trump’s brief dalliance with the noted adult-film star and director, has been two things at once: a legal drama that ensnared Trump, and an old-fashioned all-American sex scandal (think Elmer Gantry meets Gary Hart) that anyone who wants attention, or who wants to drive clicks and ratings, can hitch a ride on. Trump and Daniels met at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe in 2006. They became friendly and had a brief hookup (one night of unenthusiastic-on-her-part-but-consensual sex, according to Daniels), and when news of it surfaced during the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump got his buddy David Pecker, the owner of the National Enquirer, to buy the story and squelch it, in what became known as the catch-and-kill method. But the story was so sensational that it wouldn’t go away, and that’s when Trump offered Daniels $130,000 to sign an NDA. All of which was perfectly within the law.

The legal drama spun around the question of whether Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, who had made the payoff to Daniels by drawing on his home equity, was reimbursed illegally with campaign funds. On March 30, 2023, when Trump was indicted by a grand jury for violating campaign-finance law in the Daniels case, it was the first indictment ever of a former U.S. president. And just one year ago, to borrow a phrase from Ron Burgundy, that seemed like kind of a big deal. It was the kickoff to the widespread hope that Trump might be found guilty and serve time for this or any other of his 91 alleged crimes.

According to a piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the Daniels case, which is about to go to trial, “has often been dismissed by experts and observers as old, legally dubious and lacking in the sort of weighty issues that sit at the heart of, say, [Trump’s] two election interference cases.” But here’s where the sordid circus comes in, not to mention a certain liberal contradiction. If you watch “Stormy,” which presents Daniels as a charismatic no-nonsense professional, one aspect of the film’s message — it’s one I wholeheartedly agree with — is that it’s antiquated thinking to view Stormy Daniels as a “tawdry” celebrity, to denigrate her for being part of the adult-film industry. If you’re progressive in your beliefs, none of this should make you see her as a morally tainted person. Yet the thrust of the case (and the media coverage of it), beneath the fig leaf of campaign-finance infraction, is that it’s milking the “He paid hush money to a porn star!” angle for all it’s worth. Which kind of lets us have our sleaze and eat it too.

Most of “Stormy” was shot in 2018, after Trump became president but when the scandal was still hanging over him. Daniels, at the time, was transitioning from starring in adult films and videos to directing them. Following the trail blazed by figures like Candida Royalle, she had become the second highest-paid director in porn, even as she embarked on a national tour as a stripper (I use that word, rather than “sex worker,” because it’s the one that Daniels uses).

In the documentary, she’s unabashed about capitalizing on the fame the case brought her. At the same time, this was her profession before she became a global headline, so who would question her right to keep doing it? The stripper tour drew a dangerous element (people trying to get into the clubs with weapons), and even resulted in her being arrested in Columbus, Ohio, by a cop who was a Trump supporter. (She sued the state for violating her civil rights and was awarded $450,000.) We also observe her marriage to Glen Crain, a rock musician who clearly adores her (they live in a McSuburban Home in the Dallas area and have a young daughter), and then we see how the glare of the media spotlight melts down their relationship.

As “Stormy” makes clear, there has been opportunism at every level of the Stormy Daniels saga. Trump, before he was running for president, reveled in the aura that hanging out with a porn star gave him — and then, when he decided to run, that was no longer convenient. Daniels herself, after being threatened in a parking garage unless she let the story die, spent time living in fear of her life. Yet she never stopped playing the media.  And the media itself, in the midst of its performative tut-tutting, never stopped exploiting the story for profit.

“Stormy” was directed by Sarah Gibson, but some of the footage we see was shot in 2018 by Denver Nicks, a filmmaker who was directing a documentary about Daniels, and who briefly became romantically involved with her (that’s one of the reasons her marriage ended). We see how Daniels, riding high for a while on the scandal, becomes a symbol of the resistance, yet she also becomes the scandal’s extreme victim. This happens around the time that Trump files a $20 million lawsuit against her for defamation. It’s not a fair fight: He’s got the money to keep her entangled in legal costs, and he also has the power of the presidency. The Stormy Daniels saga may be history as tabloid fodder, and as high-priced political chicanery, but for Daniels it became a car-wreck-in-slow-motion tragedy. For Trump, the scandal has been an ongoing embarrassment. Yet “Stormy” shows you what the scandal looks like from inside the sensationalist bubble of fame, and by the end of the film you may be a little bit ashamed of us all.

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