‘Stormy’ Review: America’s Most Important Porn Star Deserves a Much Better Documentary Than This Peacock Original

A sympathetic portrait of a porn star whose life was turned upside down by the President of the United States, Sarah Gibson’s “Stormy” might not be confused for any of the other movies that its subject has starred in before, but it shares a few key things in common with virtually all of them: It’s poorly shot, severely lacking in character detail, and much longer than most people would ever need it to be. There’s self-evident value in Gibson’s efforts to spotlight the human consequences of tabloid scandal, and her film illustrates America’s culture of misogyny with the same conviction that it assails the financially punitive nature of our country’s legal system. And yet, the more this bland and incurious Peacock Original argues that Stormy has been done wrong by the media, the more convincingly it makes the case that she deserved a better documentary.

Assuming that you’ve been alive on Earth for the last six years and don’t exclusively watch Fox News, you probably know the basic facts of what happened between Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford and Donald J. Trump. But Gibson’s film, like all Peacock Originals, has been made for posterity, and so it painstakingly unpacks the hush money scandal that made Trump the first U.S. president to be indicted by a grand jury.

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To recap: They met at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006, when he was 60 and she was 27. Trump invited Daniels to dinner, her publicist encouraged her to go “for the story,” and she wound up having unpleasant — if begrudgingly consensual — sex with him in his hotel room. Ten years later, a month before Trump was elected president, the famously scrupulous real estate tycoon authorized lawyer Michael Cohen to pay Daniels $130,000 to keep her mouth shut. When the story broke in January 2018, Daniels became the most hated blonde in all of MAGA-dom, as well as the Democrats’ latest and most unlikely hope of hoisting Trump on his petard. There’s little here that you couldn’t have learned on “60 Minutes,” especially since Gibson includes footage of Daniels appearing on “60 Minutes.”

Daniels wasn’t involved in the Wall Street Journal article that blew the lid off nookie (to paraphrase a line from “Broadcast News”), but the media was quick to frame her as a political crusader who stood to profit from her one-night-stand with the worst fuck in the Western Hemisphere. The first order of business in Gibson’s doc — and the film’s prevailing goal — is to credibly re-establish that Daniels was the victim of this scandal.

“Stormy” accomplishes that with aplomb, even in spite of its eliding vagueness. It isn’t hard: In the right circumstances, most people will accept the invitation to see a public figure as a human being, and Gilbert creates those circumstances by walking us through the bullet points of Daniels’ biography. She isn’t some morally bankrupt attention whore who will eagerly sell out her entire country for a buck — her only mistake was sleeping with one. No, Daniels is a Louisiana-born horse girl who dreamed of becoming a vet, and started stripping in order to spend more time with her animals. When she became a bonafide titan of the adult industry, her self-possessed rise to the top came in defiance of a spiteful mother who failed to intervene when Daniels was sexually abused as a child, and felt resentful of her daughter’s later success (in a movie with no shortage of heartbreaking moments, few are as sad as the venomous voicemail that ends with Daniels’ mother saying “I gave you those pretty titties, you just made them bigger by a doctor”). She’s an avowed libertarian, but mostly — it seems — because the world keeps infringing upon her right to live in peace.

Most of all, Daniels is a mom who just wants to give her own daughter the love and support she was denied as a child, and Gibson’s documentary is never stronger or more affecting than when it focuses on how the Trump mishegoss impacted Daniels’ ability to be there for her kid. Daniels may have seemed on top of the world during the brief “Saturday Night Live” appearance she made at the height of the scandal, and she certainly raked in more cash during her “Make America Horny Again” tour than she ever had during her previous gigs as a stripper, but that renown came at the direct expense of her longest marriage, and the money she made from it was a drop in the bucket when measured against the $600,000 she currently owes in legal fees.

Gibson’s camera watches in real-time as the emotional distress of her subject’s divorce is compounded by threats against her life, with those circumstances eventually leaving her no choice but to surrender custody of the young daughter she loves so much. It’s agonizing to see unfold, even if Gibson would rather pad her documentary with tweets — SO MANY TWEETS – and BTS footage of Daniels’ TV appearances than contextualize her subject’s pain in the saga of her lifelong pursuit for affection. “Stormy” doesn’t even bother to contextualize her fallout with crooked lawyer and wannabe famo Michael Avenatti, which is much harder to forgive considering his frequent presence in this documentary, and the fact that his relationship with Daniels transpired entirely during the window of Gibson’s shoot.

Then again, maybe it didn’t — we have no way of knowing. Light on surprises because of its strict adherence to recent history and basic disinterest in anything else, “Stormy” still manages to include at least one genuinely unexpected reveal, even if Gibson sweeps it under the rug as fast as it pops up. Early in the film, we’re told that Daniels was being shot by a documentarian named Denver Nicks prior to Gibson’s arrival on the scene, and that some of the footage included here was salvaged from that unfinished project (though “Stormy” never stipulates which, and its scrambled timeline and abject lack of stylistic imprint make it all but impossible to tell).

Later, Gibson casually mentions that Daniels began having an affair with Nicks, though — for reasons that I can’t wrap my head around — she doesn’t feel compelled to explain the impact that had on the aborted documentary, the impact that it had on Daniels’ marriage, or the impact that Daniels’ previous life experience had on her decision to cheat on her husband with someone who manages to come off as a total scumbag in just a few moments of screentime (maybe he’s a great guy, but Gibson doesn’t really afford him the benefit of the doubt). With the major exception of the video calls that Gibson conducted with the father of Daniels’ child, her footage is most readily identifiable for its surface-level digestibility (see: the sporadic appearance of talking heads, epitomized by Seth Rogen popping up to share a single anecdote about meeting Daniels on the set of a Judd Apatow movie).

The choice to incorporate the footage from two different projects might have worked to Gibson’s advantage had she embraced the implications of what that meant, but her efforts to smooth them out into a deceptively cohesive whole have the perverse effect of confusing what should be an ultra-straightforward timeline. They also make it that much harder for Gibson to paint a coherent portrait of the woman at the center of the shitstorm, or to establish even the simplest framework of cause-and-effect in the relationships between Daniels and the various men in her life. While the cost that Daniels paid for being thrust into the limelight is clear, every other aspect of that transaction is blurred to the point of abstraction. It’s great that “Stormy” might buy its namesake a small measure of the sympathy she deserved from the start, but 110 minutes of your time shouldn’t feel like this steep of a price.

Grade: C-

“Stormy” premiered at SXSW 2024. It will be available to stream on Peacock starting on Monday, March 18.

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