On Wednesday morning, as President Trump digested the reports on morning television about his firing of the FBI director James Comey, he fired off a handful of tweets critiquing the news about his own administration. Trump belittled Comey, whom he asserted had lost the confidence of “almost everyone in Washington.” He lambasted Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, whom he accused of devising “one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history.” Then, the president took umbrage at CNN for asking whether the firing of Comey was a payback mission orchestrated by Roger Stone, “a 64-year-old close friend of Donald Trump and central figure in the FBI investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia.”
“The Roger Stone report on @CNN is false - Fake News,” the President tweeted. “Have not spoken to Roger in a long time - had nothing to do with my decision.”
So the new documentary Get Me Roger Stone, set to be released on Netflix on Friday, is certainly timely, as Stone once again enters the spotlight. On the face of it, the documentary by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme profiles Stone and his 40-year career as a strategist. With his dandyish chalkstripe suits, his aggressively manicured hairstyles, and his Nixon tattoo, Stone, as The New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin memorably puts it in the film, is the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics” who just happens to show up in the background every time there’s a constitutional crisis or a major scandal.
Stone, at the age of 19, was the youngest person to testify to the Watergate grand jury, as an employee of the Committee to Re-elect the President. He was, he says, behind the Brooks Brothers riot during the 2000 election. And, in perhaps the most influential act of his career, he persuaded Donald Trump to get into politics. “[Stone] always likes to take on somebody that at least has a good chance of winning,” the president says in an on-camera interview, showcasing his characteristic flair for self-aggrandizing compliments.
But the film, which follows Stone through his fluctuating role on the Trump campaign, is also an incisive portrait of how Stone’s brand of dirty tricks—in which the only motivating factor in politics is to win—came to dominate the current state of disarray. Stone, as he’s wont to do, cheerfully takes credit for all manner of shifts in the last four decades of U.S. elections, from the birth of PACs and superPACs to the rising influence of lobbyists to the dominance of anger and fear in the media. You may find yourself wondering, as the Fox host Tucker Carlson does at one point, whether all of these developments can actually be traced back to Stone, or whether he’s just the most dastardly self-promoter in history. But Get Me Roger Stone is a thorough and entertaining primer into how American politics got so ugly, not to mention a crucial window into the mentality of the unorthodox 45th president.
Now in his 60s, sporting bow-ties, suspenders, and an overbearing air of insouciance, Stone resembles no one so much as a senior Pee-wee Herman. He stokes the caricature of the mustache-twirling plutocrat, being interviewed in an opulent dining room next to a three-olive martini, where he expounds on “Stone’s Rules,” one-sentence aphorisms like, “It’s better to be infamous than never to be famous at all,” and “One man’s dirty trick is another man’s civil political action.” Extremely charismatic and unabashedly outspoken, he’s a documentarian’s dream. And this before the film even gets to unpacking Stone’s involvement in the rise of Trump, or his embrace of the alt-right.
The Stone mystique is carefully curated. Stone recalls early on how, at a mock election at his elementary school, he took a liking to John F. Kennedy because he had “better hair” than Nixon, and he persuaded his classmates to vote for JFK by assuring them Nixon planned to introduce school on Saturdays. “For the first time ever, I understood the value of misinformation,” Stone says, with a glint in his eye. That the story is too good to be true only further emphasizes his point.
The film details his passion for Barry Goldwater at the age of 12, and his first dirty trick, where he showed up to the campaign HQ of a Nixon rival with a jar of loose change donated by the “Young Socialist Alliance,” then asked for a receipt, which he promptly gave to the press. Stone, who shows the directors his extraordinary collection of Nixon memorabilia, seems to have identified a kindred spirit in the 37th president. “His greatest single quality is resilience,” Stone explains. “And that’s the purpose of my tattoo. It’s a reminder that in life when you get knocked down … you have to get up and keep pushing.”
This indomitable spirit pushed Stone toward his lobbying years with the firm Black, Manafort, and Stone (yes, that Manafort, and he’s also interviewed in the film), which became known as “the torturer’s lobby” for its list of highly unsavory clients. Stone, Toobin explains, “sees morality as a synonym for weakness.” Then, in 1988, the lawyer Roy Cohn introduced Stone to Trump, and Stone was immediately taken with the brash businessman’s potential. Again, the two seemed like twin souls, with their penchant for attention and their dyed blonde combovers. “I was like a jockey looking for a horse,” Stone recalls. “And [Trump’s] a prime piece of political horse flesh in my view.”
The key to Stone’s success, Paul Manafort explains, is that he sees things that others don’t. Where other, more ethically minded strategists might choose optimism when it comes to the will of the American people, Stone’s dogged lack of morality gives him a keen instinct for tactics that might reverberate across swing states. Hence his stoking of the flames of the birther movement, which echoed Nixon’s “southern strategy.” And his recent alignment with InfoWars’ Alex Jones, seen hollering in one clip about “chemicals in the water that turn the frigging frogs gay.” The “Lock Her Up” chant is Roger Stone. So were the guests Trump brought to a presidential debate to claim the Clintons were victimizers of women, at least one of whom was paid to appear by Stone’s superPAC.
Despite all this, Get Me Roger Stone does question Stone’s invulnerability, as well as his commitment to the cigar-chomping platitudes and the career-defining cynicism. Stone acknowledges at one point that there’s a difference between the “Stephen Colbert character that I play called Roger Stone” and the real Roger, who seems to have evolved into a libertarian in later years, and who’s seen in one moment marching in a New York City gay pride parade, where he’s resoundingly booed. The filmmakers detail a 1996 sex scandal in which Stone was outed as a swinger, which pushed him out of the Washington mainstream. They also make clear that his status with Trump is by no means reliable. Trump, never a fan of people who take credit for their work, explains that he let Stone go, because “he liked to get a lot of publicity for himself.” Nevertheless, as the film repeatedly shows, Stone’s always there on the sidelines, watching for an opportunity.
The most intriguing moment in the film comes from election night, when Stone and Jones clink champagne glasses in the InfoWars studio. For a moment, the camera stays on Stone’s face, which is frozen in an expression that looks quizzical, perhaps even dejected. Finally, he forces a smile. Is he sad about what he’s wrought? Concerned for his own livelihood with no putative liberal elite to rage against, as Jones seems to have been? Or simply out of character for a second? It’s up to viewers to decide. But Stone himself would decry any suggestion that he might have regrets. “I revel in your hatred,” he tells the camera in a town car after the election. “Because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.” Then, he gets out of the car and strolls smoothly into the lobby of Trump Tower.