At the end of another extraordinary, shambolic week for the Trump administration, along comes a sizzling insight into all that cockeyed bedlam.
Get Me Roger Stone (streaming on Netflix from Friday, May 12) arrives with exquisite timing. At any time it would be a political junkie's delight, a cornucopia of dope on campaigns and contradictions and inside information about dirty tricks in American politics. Right now, it is simply a mind-boggling dissection of an iconic political operative, a man who essentially created Donald Trump as a politician and had huge influence on his campaign.
Roger Stone is a compelling figure. That's an understatement: He's a dandy, a dynamite interview and utterly brazen. His specialty is influence, promotion and blatant dirty tricks. And he doesn't care who derides him for that. He's a winner and he moulds winning campaigns.
The documentary, almost two hours in length, was made by the trio of Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank, and Morgan Pehme. To mark its debut on Netflix, they co-wrote a piece about it for The Daily Beast. This is how they introduce it: "Over the course of the five-and-a-half years that we followed him for our new Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone, Roger Stone went from being a down-and-out, has-been political dirty trickster to the individual most responsible for making Donald Trump the president of the United States."
What fabulous material they found in the years they tracked Stone. At age 64, he's open, cheerful and could not give a rodent's posterior what anyone thinks of him. "One man's dirty trick is another man's civil political action," he says at one point. Of Trump he says, "I was like a jockey looking for a horse." He means that he first spotted Trump as a potentially ace politician in 1987 and, that year, encouraged him to run for office. He is now delighted with himself and boastful about his ability to spot a prizewinner.
We get, at the start, a dollop of Stone's on/off involvement with last year's Trump campaign. He's on the street somewhere shouting, "Lock her up!" into a megaphone. He's watching Trump give the acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, grinning as Trump says everything Stone influenced him to say. One thing that Stone is anxious to get across is this, about Trump –"The Apprentice made him look presidential."
The filmmakers understand, as does the viewer, that there's particular irony in Stone watching Trump declare, "We must break free from the politics of the past." Stone is the politics of the past incarnate. His brand of influence and promotion goes all the way back to Richard Nixon and Watergate. Stone was the youngest person questioned during the Senate hearings into Watergate. "I was a Watergate figure at 19 years old," he smirks, loving every second of the memories.
Then we get a lengthy look at Stone's career. Oh he was a rogue from the get-go. As a little kid, he says, he successfully flimflammed a mock election at school. Kids had to decide between John F. Kennedy and Nixon. Stone simply spread the word that Nixon wanted to have schools open on Saturdays. Kennedy triumphed in that mock election and Roger Stone's career was born. As a teen he was a Goldwater zealot. After Watergate he worked for Nixon (he has a Nixon tattoo on his back), connecting the former president to Ronald Reagan and many others. He worked for the Bushes and others.
There is a point where the profile of Stone's career – remember this doc was years in the making – where the past catches up uncannily with the vivid, unsettling present. Stone became a Washington lobbyist with the firm Black, Manafort and Stone. Indeed, we're talking about Paul Manafort from Trump's circle. And Manafort appears in the doc, cheerily praising Stone's instincts and abilities. It matters nothing to these guys that the firm was known as "the torturer's lobby" for its representation of vicious, tin-pot dictators.
Jeffrey Toobin, ubiquitous these days as an analyst on CNN, says of Stone, "He sees morality as a synonym for weakness." It was the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn, the prince of the dark arts of manipulation and sleaze, who introduced Stone to Trump. That makes sense, you think. And it makes even more sense that Stone acknowledges Cohn as his mentor.
Trump himself is featured too, naturally. And not simply on the campaign trail and winning. He's super-happy to talk about Roger Stone for the filmmakers. Of Stone he says, "He's a quality guy, a nice guy. He loves the game, he has fun with it and he's very good at it."
Tucker Carlson talks in awed manner about Stone, speculating that the last several decades of American politics are petty much Stone's doing. The existence of Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs can be attributed to Stone. He is seen at one point talking about PACs and saying, "You could elect Mickey Mouse to the House or the Senate." Many viewers will see that and think, "You outdid yourself on that score, Stone."
In another frame of reference, other than now, these days and this era, Roger Stone would look absurd, a joke in his suits and ostentatiously fancy shoes. He's no joke and he knows it – he created a monster, the one at the centre of all that cockeyed bedlam.