Debuting on Tuesday, The Frontline special presents the lives of Biden and Trump in ways that may surprise people. The focus is on moments from their lives that would shape how they responded to future challenges.
Michael Kirk, the director of The Choice, said that they approached the documentary with the question, “Could we find eight crisis points in their lives, where we could find them confronting something that they would then learn from, adopt a kind of life method from?”
A few examples: Biden’s childhood stutter forced him to become more resilient, and shed light on his ability to persevere through life tragedy and career mistakes, such as a plagiarism scandal that ended his first presidential campaign in 1988. Trump’s tough childhood informed how he gravitated toward mentors like Roy Cohn and how he adopted an over-the-top bombast in the face of business failure.
There also are unexpected poignant moments, as when Jill Biden talks about briefly meeting her husband’s first wife, Neilia, who was killed in a traffic accident along with their infant daughter in 1972.
This is the 9th time that Frontline has presented such an election special about the candidates, but it is the first where the two contenders are so vastly different. Kirk, who has directed five of them, is a bit stumped to come up with any similarities, other than that the two candidates come from the same generation. Deadline chatted with Kirk recently about making The Choice. DEADLINE: These are two people who have been in the public eye for almost 50 years. How do you dig for something that people just don’t know yet? KIRK: We spent a few months reading, talking to everybody that we could, seeing everything that had been made about them. Just hundreds of hours of stuff, and finding ther crises, and then building eight segments about it leading up to the crisis of today. And it really allowed us to see them in a kind of fresher way than the way that they wanted to be seen. And that’s the most important part. DEADLINE: You never interview the candidates themselves, but you did talk to Jill Biden. KIRK: In this case Jill seemed central to the crises, especially the plagiarism [scandal] Neil Kinnock, and of course, that she had met Neilia. [Including her] felt kind of right. [She and Joe Biden] have a really interesting partnership in a way that … Donald doesn’t have with anybody else. So in this case, she was the closest thing to an insider besides his sister Val. And in a way, you almost had to interview her, because she knew things and was willing to say things that others wouldn’t. DEADLINE: The story about Neilia. I had never heard that. I never knew that they met. KIRK: [Neilia’s death] is a tragedy that becomes the sort of second kind of moment of grief for Joe. The first, of course, is his stuttering and trying to learn to persevere from that, and then the deep grief that he felt of the death of his wife and his baby daughter and the damage to his two sons. You know, it would have taken a lot of us out at that moment. It is a story that will resonate all the way through his life, that he sort of becomes sort of what he is now, the sort of grief counselor to America. DEADLINE: Another aspect of his career that you featured quite extensively was the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings. What surprised you about Biden (who presided over the hearings as chairman of the Judiciary Committee) in that moment that you perhaps didn’t know? KIRK: It was the extent to which he was a guy who really needed to be liked by both of them, and by everybody on the committee… Somehow [Biden] conducted that hearing in a way that he just needed all of them to like him. It just really surprised me. … Certainly Jill admitted that he thought that the way he handled Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and the other women like Angela Wright, who were waiting to testify, that it was a mistake. DEADLINE: There was there was one comment [in the documentary] about how Joe Biden had managed to turn a political crisis into a relationship — certainly the case with Barack Obama [to whom he apologized after making a verbal gaffe during the primary]. Do you think that is what he has done throughout his career? KIRK: That’s what he does. That is what he has learned to do. Even when he had the stutter and he was in high school, everybody loved the guy. The way they tell us, he had a way of being that was just so, almost brave, as his friend Mouse describes it, at the time when he was a lifeguard. And he was always that way, very relationship driven. … When he got in trouble, when he made a mistake, it’s one of the things he does besides admit it and apologize, very different from the way Donald Trump’s playbook works, and very much persevering afterward…And once he makes that gaffe with Obama, he’s determined to apologize and go back to his playbook and and get to know Obama, and offer Obama what he thought Obama did not have, which was the sort of elder statesman role. He made himself, according to Valerie Jarrett, valuable to Obama. DEADLINE: Are there some parallels there — the way that Obama picked Joe Biden and Biden picked Kamala Harris. KIRK: The reverse parallel is wonderful and striking when you look at it. People close to him felt like he was hurt by the way she attacked him [during a primary debate last year]. But he also understands politics. He’s has been around a long time. I think he was personally hurt because she was such a close friend of Beau’s. But I think he got it. He’s got bigger fish to fry than carrying a grudge about somebody who attacked him in a debate. I think this is one of the things about him. The people who make mistakes are often capable of forgiving others who make mistakes. DEADLINE: You don’t focus so much on Trump’s presidency as you do his childhood and career. KIRK: A lot of people said, ‘What can you possibly say about Donald Trump that you haven’t said in the eight films you made about him during his administration?’ Once you know what your character has done in his life, to reverse engineer and go back and say, ‘What is the first example of him not being able to share the spotlight, or hold on to a chief of staff?’ Where does that come from? And that leads you back to Ivana, his first and only partner. ‘Where does the law and order impulse come from? Where does the attacking your enemies come from? Where does the hatred of experts come from?’ … Well, we wanted to go back and see where it came from, and we did, and it meant that we spent a long time inside Donald Trump’s life story. DEADLINE: There is a substantial amount of talk of the influence of Norman Vincent Peale, who preached the power of positive thinking. KIRK: His dad was a big follower of Norman Vincent Peale and dragged Donald and his siblings to the church with some frequency. I gather that around the home and in the church, Donald had this in his head. And you can see it happening all through the Atlantic City story [which ended in the bankruptcy filings of his casino properties]. Just like he had this amazing business going and then he didn’t listen to the experts. They said, ‘You cannot have three casinos. You cannot have a million dollars a day. You are never going to make it in windy, cold Atlantic City in the winter.’ And he didn’t believe them. It’s hubris, yes. But it’s also more than that. It’s a huge part of who Donald Trump is. And it’s why he hasn’t listened to the experts. And it’s the fact that he doesn’t want to share the spotlight with anybody who gets super popular. It all makes a kind of sense, if you look back at those moments. DEADLINE: How did you decide you to interview for those segments with Trump and who not to? KIRK: It’s been my experience that when you get too close, it’s really hard, especially for people who are not themselves kind of super thoughtful or introspective. You never really get anything that you want, especially in these lengthy interviews I do. We had a big long three and a half hours with [Steve] Bannon. We had [Roger] Stone. You want to guys like that, who were with him kind of along the way. Didn’t get [John] Kelly, who I think would have been a really good interview. So we had a list of maybe a 50 people we really wanted, we got about 20, 25 of them. It’s an interesting thing in these kind of television documentaries who is actually good talking about it. And somebody like the Mooch [Anthony Scaramuccci], crazy notorious character, on the news and everything, but a really thoughtful guy and able to be thoughtful about [Trump]. And of course he has got an ax to grind. That was the other thing, almost everybody who you would think worked for Trump for years, a lot of them are pretty mad at the guy, and a lot of them are afraid of the guy. DEADLINE: Did you have any hesitation of having so many people who had falling outs with Trump? You interview Scaramucci, Omarosa, John Bolton, Mary Trump. KIRK: The thing about it is, I have sort of stopped worrying about, ‘How can I get people who will defend them or whatever?’ There just aren’t a universe of people like that, who you would say, “Well, in fairness, I have to get so and so.” I’ve come to believe that [Trump] doesn’t care about things like that. He likes being the wrecking ball. In a way that he encourages this level of misbehavior by people who kiss and tell with him. It’s an interesting thing about him. DEADLINE: To what extent is that reflected in the breakup of his first marriage? He seemed to thrive on these tabloid stories. KIRK: The stories Mary tells, and the stories others tell about his childhood are sort of an explanation of a hostile home space. His dad was really something, and his mom was really sick. And he and his siblings all thought Donald was tempestuous, he was out of control at times, arrogant and living in a fearful environment as a child. It’s not surprising that he would develop survival instincts that would yield the kind of person that he becomes. Trump and Biden are two very different people. Where do you see the similarities? KIRK: How many politicians have I known in my life? They mostly have this desire for recognition for a certain level of public service. They’re a kind of type, and even in that realm, Trump doesn’t match up. His need for applause does not come from public policy or doing good or the kinds of things that get you ahead if you’re a politician. That is not where it is coming from with him. He’s different than any of the others I’ve ever reported on or have ever been around. He’s a very different guy. But he is very good at being that different guy. He has found a way to appeal to a group of Americans who are so angry at Washington and the government. He knows how to play that card, and he’s as good at it as any politician I’ve ever seen. Frontline‘s The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden debuts at 9 PM ET on Tuesday on PBS stations.