There has yet to be a great film about Donald Trump. Perhaps it’s just too soon. Eugene Jarecki’s Promised Land doesn’t try to present a coherent vision of recent history, which would likely prove to be dated by the end of the first day’s shooting. Instead, he uses an examination of the life of Elvis Presley as an excuse to take the temperature of a nation. It’s a scattershot, playful approach that, while not entirely coherent, is repeatedly insightful, and arguably the best film that has been made about a subject whose effects are felt on a daily basis.
The driving force behind Jarecki’s investigation is a literal one: Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce. He decides to drive it across America and have interviewees ride along for a while: from blues musicians, to former friends of Elvis, to celebrities, including Ethan Hawke and Ashton Kutcher. A traditional documentary about Elvis unfolds in spurts, though Jarecki is smart enough to indulge in thematic digressions. Discussions about Elvis’s rise to fame lead to cultural appropriation – whether he stole material from black musicians while doing nothing for the black community – which, in turn, lead to American culture, iconography and philosophy, with almost every interviewee offering their own interpretation of the American Dream.
This could turn out to be pretentious, and some links between Elvis and Trump’s rise to power are too tangential or broad for their own good. (A book would allow for greater depth.) However, this is offset by Jarecki’s habit for self-deprecation, and questioning the limits of his own filmmaking. At one point David Simon, the creator of The Wire, criticises his Rolls Royce metaphor, saying an American-made Cadillac would have worked better. And one interviewee asks Jarecki if he knows what kind of film he’s making – to which he has no real answer.
Promised Land is a documentary with no clear purpose other than soul-searching, which feels appropriate in a time of miserable flux. It helps that there are plenty of jokes, both visual and accidental: Alec Baldwin, interviewed in 2016, insists that there’s no chance Trump will win. And while this undoubtedly would have worked better in longer form – an entire country’s woes could never fit into two hours – there is something inspired in its essay-like pairing of Elvis and Trump as exclusively American icons, which ultimately proves to be rather persuasive.
Promised Land does not have a UK release date yet.