After weeks of hype, Unprecedented proves, well, precedented

Nearly three weeks ago, Politico broke the news that Alex Holder had recently been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating January 6. At the time, no one really knew who Holder, a thirtysomething British filmmaker, was—“I didn’t exist,” he said later, “I had 115 Twitter followers”—and yet he’d managed, we were told, to secure extensive access to then-President Trump; his children Eric, Ivanka, and Don Jr.; and his vice president, Mike Pence, during the 2020 presidential campaign and in the run-up to the insurrection. This came as a surprise not only to seasoned Beltway hacks but also to members of Trump’s own inner circle, many of whom, apparently, first learned about Holder’s documentary project from Politico. A former official on Trump’s campaign told Rolling Stone that it was a “terrible idea” for Trump to have given Holder so much access. Another responded, to the same publication, “What the fuck is this?”

Soon after Politico’s story dropped, Holder put out a statement in which he confirmed the existence of a forthcoming Trump documentary—titled Unprecedented, and based on “unparalleled access and exclusive interviews”—and insisted that, as a Brit, he had no “agenda” in making the film besides wanting to “better understand who the Trumps were and what motivated them to hold onto power so desperately.” He also confirmed that he had complied with the committee’s subpoena, handing over hours of raw footage and agreeing to sit for an interview behind closed doors; journalists commonly resist legal demands, for ethical reasons, but Holder said later that he felt a “responsibility” to cooperate given the severity of January 6, and that he likely would have been forced to comply anyway. (Weirdly, Holder was not the first British filmmaker to have been subpoenaed by the committee: Nick Quested, who was embedded with the extremist group the Proud Boys around the time of the insurrection, testified during the committee’s first televised hearing.) Major news organizations soon obtained clips from Holder’s footage; the New York Times reported that Ivanka legitimized her father’s election lies to Holder despite having told the committee that she had, by the time of that interview, accepted that there was no there there. Political media buzzed as to what other incriminating evidence Holder may have captured on tape.

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Meanwhile, Holder’s Twitter following soared and he spoke about his project in interviews with a bevy of top outlets. He told Politico that the film would contain the “most extraordinary footage that I’ve seen” of the insurrection itself, and told Time that his interviews would prove important in establishing a chronology of who was thinking what in the run-up. He said he’d persuaded the Trumps to grant him access—which he reportedly brokered through a prior connection to Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy—by promising to “listen” to them in a media climate they otherwise perceived as hostile, and that his own Britishness and Trump’s hubris probably helped, though he insisted, following reports to the contrary, that he had not promised Trump any editorial control over the final cut. His approach, he told Politico, had been not to ask too many follow-up questions, avoiding the more “combative” style of other interviewers by letting Trump state his answers, then contextualizing them with other footage.

In the days after Holder was subpoenaed, Discovery+ announced that it had acquired the rights to his documentary and a first trailer appeared, scored with tense string music and showing Trump’s children physically sitting down for interviews; it ended with a voice (presumably Holder’s) asking Trump if he would talk about January 6 and Trump responding, suspensefully, “Yep.” Since then, the network and Holder have dripped out more previews, one of which interspersed footage from the film with clips of recent cable-news hype about Holder’s subpoena. Another showed Trump sitting for an interview and spending a minute or so fussing with the placement of a glass of water next to him. The latter footage “shows who he is as a person in quite an interesting way,” Holder told Politico, as well as offering a Rorschach test, of sorts: some viewers would laud Trump’s attention to detail while others would see it as pathetic. “That encompasses the feelings toward him,” Holder said. “People either love him or they don’t.”

Early yesterday, Holder’s documentary dropped in three parts. In some quarters, the press continued to hype it. At least one listicle appeared summarizing its most “shocking” moments. Ryan J. Reilly, who has been covering the legal fallout from January 6 for NBC, predicted that the film’s footage of the insurrection would lead to more insurrectionists being identified.

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Other commentators, however, seemed underwhelmed. Rolling Stone’s Nikki McCann Ramírez described the film as a “fascinating portrait” of the Trump family, but noted that it did not, in the end, offer “any new revelations about or revelatory footage of” Trump and his inner circle in the buildup to, or on, January 6. Deadline’s Ted Johnson basically concurred with that analysis, writing that the final cut is light on surprising fly-on-the-wall moments. “The production enjoyed unprecedented hype for a new series on a streamer best known for home improvement shows,” Lorraine Ali, a TV critic at the LA Times, wrote, but ultimately, “Discovery+’s marketing of Unprecedented as a new source of revelatory information about the Trump White House around the Capitol attack wasn’t entirely honest.” Those who’ve watched the January 6 committee’s public hearings “won’t learn anything new about the Trump family’s alleged involvement in Big Lie conspiracies or the violent coup attempt,” Ali added—and the hearings have been better TV.

I started watching Unprecedented yesterday and finished it this morning. Whatever Trump’s rationale for granting access, the finished film is not hagiography; in fact, it doesn’t really editorialize at all, a reflection of Holder’s repeated insistence that viewers should be free to draw their own conclusions. Showing rather than telling can be an effective journalistic approach, as long as you show things accurately: Unprecedented doesn’t have a narrator, but it leaves little doubt as to the insanity of Trump’s election lies, with respected mainstream media figures—Phil Rucker, Peter Baker, Eddie Glaude Jr.—appearing as needed to assert the basic truth; the day of the insurrection itself, meanwhile, is sketched deftly and in painful detail, with Holder clearly illustrating a direct line between Trump’s words and violence at the Capitol. Nor is there necessarily anything wrong with not having any bombshells. As I’ve often written, there’s value in narratives that intelligently synthesize things we already knew about Trump’s coup attempt, putting events in order and context, or coming at them from a new angle.

Still, Unprecedented, in my view, does not hit that latter benchmark consistently—and, as for Ali and others, the film ultimately left me feeling underwhelmed. The menace of the building coup attempt is interspersed with digressions about the history of the Trump family, almost all of which have been recapitulated countless times elsewhere, and many of which simply didn’t hold my interest. Holder told Politico that he tried to show the Trumps as human beings, but if anything, segments to that end—the revelation that Trump sang to Ivanka as a child; excruciating banter about various family members’ skiing prowess—showed only how dead-eyed and soulless the Trumps can make familial relations feel. Ultimately, Unprecedented never really decides if it’s a family portrait or an account of a great democracy’s descent into authoritarianism. Holder told Politico that he feared that “election discourse” could “potentially cloud what I think the film is in essence, which is a very fair portrayal—a very, I think, authentic portrayal—of this fascinating and unique family.” Enough said.

Events, of course, dictated the climate in which the film would appear: Holder surely didn’t count on the insurrection when he started filming, or ask to be subpoenaed by the committee investigating it. Guaranteeing bombshells on the January 6 front was not his job. But, when you tease them, it’s not unreasonable for critics to point to their absence. When asked about the events of that day, Eric, Ivanka, and Don Jr. all had no comment. (“You’ve said before that you didn’t want to talk about the Capitol,” a voice—again, probably Holder’s—can be heard asking Eric. “Should we move on?”) Nor does Pence, interviewed post-insurrection, have anything interesting to say, despite a much-hyped clip that shows him receiving a congressional demand that he invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment, responding “Excellent,” and asking a staffer to print it out—and even that, to my mind, proves little without further context. Throughout, the film makes far too much of moments, like the water glass, that show the Trumps fussing with their interview setup. It’s all nicely shot and competently put together. But the interviews, in particular, offer viewers precious little fresh substance. The access, in the end, seems to be the point.

Again, bombshells, even when promised, aren’t the only, or even the best, metric by which January 6 journalism should be judged. I say that so often not to diminish the importance of finding out new details, even if relatively minor, about Trump’s coup attempt—they’re all important in building a historical record, and Holder’s film is certainly a contribution to that—or to suggest, instead, that coverage should be reduced to repetitive yelling about the basic, well-established fact that January 6 happened. I say it, rather, because hyping bombshells that don’t really deliver on such terms itself risks diminishing well-established facts, and can help Trump and his cronies move the goalposts by crying “Dud.” Holder and Discovery+ can hardly be blamed for teasing their work. But the press, once again, can be blamed for amping up the anticipation, sight unseen. Some things in the Trump story are truly unprecedented. Very little in this documentary is. (There’s a reason we at CJR wish the word were used a whole lot less.)

Ultimately, the most insightful thought I’ve heard from Holder came in his interview with Politico. Asked, based on his observations following the Trumps at the time, how he assessed a media debate that followed Trump’s election loss but preceded January 6—when a number of journalists argued that his burgeoning coup attempt shouldn’t be taken seriously because it was such a farce, and that Trump was likely just blowing off steam—Holder replied that nothing a president does should be seen as farcical, “because he’s the president.” The idea that something like the insurrection wouldn’t happen after Trump spent weeks telling people the election was rigged was “ludicrous,” Holder added. “There is at least a chance that everything won’t be okay.”

Below, more on January 6:

  • Another one: According to The Guardian’s Hugo Lowell, yet another documentary about January 6 is in the works, this one captured by two conservative filmmakers, Jason Rink and Paul Escandon, who had access to the pro-Trump activists Roger Stone and Ali Alexander in the run-up to the insurrection. According to a teaser for the documentary, which is titled The Steal, Rink and Escandon “captured footage of the leaders of the Stop the Steal movement and their interactions with top Trump allies,” Lowell reports. As the Washington Post already reported, Stone also gave access to a Danish documentary crew who filmed him on January 6.
  • The Hutch act: Two weeks ago—after the House January 6 committee scheduled a surprise last-minute hearing with Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump’s chief of staff, that actually did deliver bombshells—political reporters speculated as to why the committee had rushed Hutchinson to the stand. Now Robert Draper reports, for the Times, that the committee acted quickly because it was concerned that Trumpworld was trying to tamper with Hutchinson’s testimony, and judged that getting her story out there would “make her less vulnerable, attract powerful allies and be its own kind of protection.” Members also wanted to preempt her testimony leaking to the press.
  • Bannon wagon: Steve Bannon, the right-wing media impresario and former Trump aide who was indicted for contempt of Congress after refusing to testify before the committee last year, now says that he’s willing to talk after Trump authorized him to do so; Trump previously asserted executive privilege over any testimony by Bannon, but has reportedly grown frustrated that more people haven’t appeared before the committee to defend him. Bannon’s lawyer said that he would prefer to testify in public, but Zoe Lofgren, a member of the committee, said yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union that he will be called to testify behind closed doors.
  • Coming attractions: On Friday, the committee heard in private from another witness whose cooperation it has long sought to secure: Pat Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel. Lofgren told CNN that the committee plans to show excerpts of his testimony at a hearing this week. The committee’s next televised hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, and is set to focus on the activities of extremist groups and militias on January 6. It will then also host a hearing on Thursday, focused on what Trump was doing while his supporters sacked the Capitol. The Thursday hearing will be in prime time—the committee’s first session in an evening slot since its opening gambit last month.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Former President Donald Trump walks on stage during an event Friday, July 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)