White Noise [AFI DOCS Review]

A question I get asked every so often is, “What is the scariest movie that isn't horror?” I've had various answers to that, and White Noise could certainly qualify as the latest. The documentary, which had its virtual world premiere at the 2020 AFI Docs festival, takes viewers into the heart of the alt-right. This is not, however, the kind of heavy-handed liberal polemic you might expect upon hearing that. Director Daniel Lombroso takes a very clear-eyed approach to the subject, utilizing unprecedented access to show the movement for what it is – an effort to launch a full-on culture war, driven by people whose anger and media savvy is matched by their opportunism. That mixture of hatred and a desire for attention is what makes them so dangerous.

Lombroso follows three notable alt-right figures: white nationalist Richard Spencer, anti-immigration YouTube figure Lauren Southern, and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich (i.e. the guy who started the 2016 lie that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson's). Despite having generally the same kinds of views, two of them don't like each other. Spencer thinks Cernovich is a poser; Cernovich thinks Spencer's refusal to condemn his followers' use of the Nazi salute is “bad for the cause.” That suggests a fraction within the movement that will likely one day be its downfall.

White Noise shows us the ups and downs of being an alt-right figurehead. Social media impressions – including those profitable YouTube subscriptions – rise, and sometimes they get positively noticed on the street. On the other end, stoking fires can lead to getting burned. Spencer, at one point, shows up for a speaking engagement that turns out to be sparsely attended, and at another he's shouted offstage by protesters. Southern, meanwhile, claims to be sexually harassed by another far-right figure. Reconciling her anti-feminism views with her own personal MeToo moment creates real cognitive dissonance.

And then there are situations like Charlottesville. Neither Southern, Spencer, nor Cernovich appear to accept responsibility for the idea that people might be inspired to act violently based on the words/ideas they put forth. Cernovich even repeatedly refers to himself as essentially a satirist. Their disingenuous nature is another aspect the movie captures so well. All three of them want to spew white-nationalist and/or anti-immigrant rhetoric, while refusing to take any sort of accountability for what might come of it.

Over the course of White Noise's 96-minute running time, you get to see these three people as they truly are. Spencer is exactly what he appears to be: a full-on white nationalist pushing a bigoted agenda. The other two are slightly more complex. Cernovich is a huckster (with an Iranian wife, no less) who uses his controversial notoriety, in part, to hawk vitamin supplements and facial cream online. Southern is vapid influencer in her early twenties who isn't mature enough to fully understand the ramifications of the racially-charged views she's espousing. (Her arc ends on a stunningly ironic note.) The power of the film is in how it lets these individuals reveal themselves as more than – or, depending on your point of view, less than – they appear in public.

Again, Lombroso skillfully shows this by permitting his subjects to reveal who they are, on their own, without interjection. I don't know how he earned their trust, but each of them drops their guard to a degree, allowing viewers to witness the behind-the-scenes machinations of the alt-right, where social media influence is more valuable than gold. Despite refraining from overt commentary most of the time, the last couple minutes of White Noise poignantly pull together the results of recent alt-right messaging. I was reminded of the ending of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman in that regard.

We're left with the impression that the alt-right is full of skilled performers who have found in “new media” an outlet for their bigotry, as well as an audience willing to revere them for it – and probably do the dirty work so their hands can remain clean.

White Noise chilled me to the bone.

White Noise is unrated, but contains adult language and mature subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.