In her writing about the Nazis, Hannah Arendt famously introduced the phrase “the banality of evil” into the public lexicon. Republican political strategist Roger Stone is as evil as they come, but there is nothing even remotely banal about this man. With his slicked-back hair plugs, pinstriped suits and circular black sunglasses, he cuts a figure something like a live-action version of a cartoon super-villain. He harbors a fetishistic devotion to his weasel idol Richard Nixon (Stone’s staggering collection of memorabilia includes two rare bongs in the shape of Tricky Dick’s head), and gladly shows off his back tattoo of the former President’s face to anyone who asks. His hobbies include bodybuilding and attending swingers’ parties with his expensive-looking wife. By the time he lovingly compares his own mother to Livia Soprano — who tried to have her son murdered, it bears mentioning — it’s apparent that some key part of Stone’s brain isn’t plugged in.
Both Stone himself and “Get Me Roger Stone,” Netflix’s new documentary chronicling his rise to power within his party, marvel at how gobsmackingly weird this dude has been able to remain while living in the public eye. But while filmmakers Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme convey a mouth-agape horror that a clear maniac could amass so much political capital, Stone’s tickled that he was able to do it all his way, Sinatra-style. Instead of softening his edges to fit in, Stone remolded Republican politics in his own image as a modern ‘Nam where claiming victory (by any means necessary, no matter how underhanded) supersedes petty ethical concerns. Like our current Commander-in-Chief, the Frankenstein’s monster now beyond Stone’s control, he divides the world into winners and losers. It just so happens that complete moral bankruptcy cut the shortest path to the top.
Cannily described in a talking-head soundbite as “a malevolent Forrest Gump,” Stone has been present at every pivotal juncture of conservative politics in the last four decades. From his worshipful start with the Nixon campaign to a key role in selling the public on Reaganomics to stealing the 2000 election out from under Al Gore, Stone’s shown to be the best at what he does. And what he does isn’t very nice: a panel of experts all seem to agree that Stone’s a slippery fish, and party affiliation determines whether that makes him a genius or a menace. Because the filmmakers clearly fall into the latter camp — Stone himself half-jokingly heckles the camera operator as a pinko liberal — their lone burning question concerns self-awareness, the extent to which Stone understands what a heinous piece of shit he is. It’s nothing short of chilling to watch him prove, over and over again, that he does not.
Which makes the pedestrian methods of “Get Me Roger Stone” all the more disappointing. The filmmakers squander a boundlessly fascinating figure in service of yet another paint-by-numbers info-doc with all the dramatic heft of a book report. Title cards displaying “Stones’ Rules,” charming maxims for world domination you can imagine needlepointed on the pillows at Gordon Gekko’s grandma’s house, break the mix of interviews and archival footage up into digestible little chunks. The film starts and ends with Trump, as it must, but spending the final half-hour rehashing every agonizing beat of No. 45’s ascendance overreaches from reportage into outrage-stoking when outrage has already been thoroughly stoked. This final act will undoubtedly prove more useful to audiences in the distant future, streaming video on whatever charred remnant of the planet lasts until 2020. At present, however, the summarizing of the recent past is maddening without having the edifying benefits of the first hour.
The primary work of documentaries about despicable people often errs on the side of explanation, a search for some insight on what made them this way. To its credit, this film makes no overtures of searching for decency in Stone, or contriving an origin story for him. He’s first introduced as a baby no-goodnik, rigging his grade-school mock election with lunch-line misinformation. The closest we get to a sympathetic moment with Stone comes with his confession that socially, he’s pretty liberal; he’s never more human than when admitting he believes in man’s right to get stoned and gay-married. Beyond that, the man’s a black hole of self-interest and hatred. “Get Me Roger Stone” is never more effective than when staring directly into that hole, drowning its audience in the black. [B]