Frontline soberly profiles Clinton, Trump in ‘The Choice’

(CNN)Frontline is once again demonstrating how indispensable it is with “The Choice 2016,” a two-hour documentary that methodically chronicles the lives of presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

So many words have been devoted to the candidates that one could easily conclude there’s nothing much left to say. But “The Choice” adopted a parallel structure — oscillating between the two biographies — that proves illuminating as it cuts back and forth to highlight their paths from adolescence to, for one, the White House.
“The Choice” has already made some news, as press outlets picked up on a clip featuring Trump supporter/former “The Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault saying that Trump’s critics will eventually have to “bow down” before him — which vaguely echoed a quote by the villain in “Superman 2” — and that becoming president would be “the ultimate revenge.”


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What’s even more telling, though, is the broader context: “The Choice” opens with Trump being the butt of President Obama’s jokes at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Associates say he “felt humiliated,” and that feeling made him get serious about a presidential run.
Highlights of the Clinton portion include her early forays into activism at Wellesley, where she generated headlines by upstaging a conservative senator, Edward Brooke, with her commencement speech rebuttal. It also details the sacrifices she made, and the humiliation she endured as a political spouse, which included remaking herself to suit that role and advance Bill Clinton’s career, first in Arkansas and eventually as president.
As noted, most of the biographical details are by now familiar to close political observers. Trump’s time in military school; his alcoholic brother; the way he aligned himself with Roy Cohn, the attorney closely associated with McCarthyism, when he was breaking into Manhattan real estate. Clinton’s failed attempt to mastermind health care reform as First Lady; her husband’s public infidelity; her pursuit of public office on her own, including how Obama derailed those plans.
Having produced three previous editions of this quadrennial special, director Michael Kirk (sharing writing credit with Mike Wiser) reaches far and wide, relying on friends, journalists and biographers. For Trump, the scales seem perhaps more heavily tilted toward the last of those categories, though there are also allies, like Manigault and Roger Stone.
Cramming a lot of information into the allotted time, “The Choice” paints a particularly clear picture of how these two figures — relatively close in age — navigated their formative years in the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, and how that experience affects them now.
This sober endeavor stands in stark contrast to the coverage these candidates frequently receive in other broadcast venues. That’s especially true in primetime, during which network news magazines continue to tilt toward true crime and tawdry tales of missing persons and spouses killing each other.
In that regard, Frontline represents a dispassionate forum, but not a boring one — in productions such as this, neatly distilling complex issues down to their essence.
Granted, an era of hyper-partisanship has made tackling thorny topics a bit of a minefield, even for a franchise like Frontline. Yet when it comes to finding something akin to “The Choice” on other networks, there’s really not that much of a choice at all.
“The Choice 2016” airs Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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