There's a scene partway through Richard Linklater's 2006 adaptation of A Scanner Darkly—the one with the rotoscoping—in which Keanu Reeves passes a street protester with a bullhorn. The protester is yelling about how Substance D, the mysterious drug Reeves is both taking and trying to bust dealers of, is being used to enslave Americans. Suddenly, a van pulls up, and police officers jump out, tase the protester, and drag him in. We never see him again.
The scene is funny for two reasons. One, of course, is that a guy is making wild accusations about how the government is controlling us, only to be swept up by secret police, confirming his claims. But the second is that the character is portrayed by Alex Jones, the infamous conspiracy theorist and radio host. Jones's mere presence in the movie is comedic—ha ha, what if this guy were actually right about everything?
A few days ago, a friend shared a news story about the parent company of Jones's website, InfoWars, filing for bankruptcy ahead of judgment in the defamation case brought against Jones by parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook. When I mentioned Jones's cameo, the friend replied, "I hope the courts bleed him dry." What surprised me was the vitriol. How had Alex Jones gone, in our collective consciousness, from clown to monster?
This question is arguably at the heart of Alex's War, the sophomore offering from documentarian Alex Lee Moyer. The movie traces Jones's career from Austin public access television to fringe superstar. Visually, it is well-assembled, if suffering from the too-glossy look that Netflix has made popular. The soundtrack is thoughtfully put together. The whole thing is maybe slightly too long, but what documentary isn't? Such concerns pale against the fact that Alex's War is that rarest of things, a journalistic investigation of its subject that aims to understand, rather than simply condemn.
Of course, that approach is why Alex's War has gotten attention in this, the age where "platforming" is "violence." Typical is the review published by Sightlines, an Austin culture mag. The reviewer appears to think that Moyer spends not enough time criticizing Jones's claims that Sandy Hook was a hoax, nor his involvement in the Capitol riot. It is unthinkable to mention Jones's name without condemning him as obviously evil.
And to be fair, it's hard to watch Alex's War without getting the impression that Jones is a bad person. It isn't just the conspiracy theorizing or the compulsive urge to shock and offend. (When he was doing that about George Bush and 9/11, of course, the left loved him.) It's that from his early days, depicted through archival footage, Jones has plainly been in it for the attention, for the cult following, and the rewards of charisma. Once you remember that you can't trust anything Jones says—the man lies for a living—then his claims of victimhood start to sound like unintentional self-indictments.
At the same time, for the first several decades of his career, one could know all this and still discuss Alex Jones without cursing his name. He appeared on The View in 2011. Esquire profiled him in 2013 without even mentioning Sandy Hook. What changed?
Alex's War gives the obvious answer: Donald Trump.
Trump appeared on InfoWars frequently back when no one, including Trump, thought he had a real shot at the presidency. To the liberal observer, of course, it's easy to say Trump and Jones are the same. Orange man bad, yelling man bad, etc. But there's something to the idea that they tap into the same thing: a profound discontent with the status quo, which, both Trump and Jones claim, is driven by the selfish machinations of the unaccountable elites who rule us.
It is not as though they are perfectly wrong, either. No, Obama and Hillary are not sulfurous demons who eat babies. But great decision-making power really does lie with unelected bureaucrats, some of them not American, and all of whom are happy to close churches but permit anti-police riots. And they really were all a little too friendly with pedophiles. At the same time, that the conspiratorial tendency in American politics identifies real problems does not mean it is not dangerous. This is the basic tension of populist politics: Its diagnosis may be right, but its cure mishandled can be worse than the disease.
And, simply by regarding its subject even-handedly, it is this tension Alex's War depicts. The movie ends with a juxtaposition: footage of Jones telling protesters on January 6 to go around and not storm into the Capitol, against footage of Jones complaining that the media unfairly accused him of stoking the ensuing riot. In one regard, it's hard to blame the guy who kept calling for peace and order—who insisted that his protesters were not Antifa and BLM—for what came next.
But on the other hand, Jones built a whole career off of riding that tiger. Is it any surprise that he ended up bitten?