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Stormy

Opening night at the 2024 South by Southwest Film Festival may have been dominated by Doug Liman’s remake of “Road House,” but there was a major event unfolding just next door at almost the same time, a major stop on the career train route of one of the most unexpected public figures of the last decade. “Stormy” unpacks the last several years in the life of Stormy Daniels, a name that produces incredibly strong responses around the world. Those who forgive former President Donald Trump of literally any legal or moral indiscretion have turned Daniels into a villain, seeing her only as someone seeking money and fame. An increasingly larger contingent sees Daniels as a powerful woman who fearlessly asserted her right to not be called a liar by one of the most important people in the world. I would like to hope that even Stormy’s critics and enemies could be moved by the film about her because, at its core, it’s a successful attempt to strip away the political issues and present its subject as a flesh-and-blood human being, someone with feelings, anxieties, and a great deal of courage.

Of course, that’s probably naïve. People on the far end of the political spectrum see all of Trump’s enemies as their own. It’s not so much that they don’t believe that Trump and Michael Cohen used campaign money to keep an affair with Stormy Daniels quiet—it’s that they don’t care that they did. The facts are the facts, even if it took Trump and his cronies years to come around to admitting most of them. Daniels herself is very open about the early encounters she had with Trump, ones in which he promised to get her on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and the one time they slept together, which she carefully asserts she didn’t really want to do but also didn’t resist. She’s actually relatively kind to Trump when she talks about their personal interactions, speaking about how she thought he was just as interested in her intelligence as her body—and Daniels is undeniably intelligent, using her background to become a successful porn director and businesswoman.

The problems didn’t really start until the story of the affair broke, and Trump started denying it, turning Daniels into a liar in the public eye. Unlike so many people that Trump has targeted, Daniels fought back. Michael Cohen eventually admitted to paying Daniels to be quiet; Trump played games with how much he knew about it; Giuliani ultimately said that Trump himself paid Cohen back. Cohen was charged with a campaign finance violation, sentenced to three years in prison, and disbarred. However, as he so often does, Trump skated off to another scandal, leaving Daniels to deal with the consistent harassment and even death threats.

Using a lot of footage that was filmed for a documentary that Daniels started producing in 2018, “Stormy” allows remarkable access into a national scandal in a way that deeply humanizes its subject. Whatever you think of Daniels, I would hope we could agree that she shouldn’t have to fear for the safety of herself or her child. The threats of violence reached such a peak that there’s a heartbreaking scene in which she basically talks about the filmmakers using her footage as proof of what’s been happening should she be murdered. “Stormy” is a portrait of a woman who has had to live in fear, watched her marriage collapse, and was consistently harassed—all because she undeniably, provably, told the truth about a financial payment. That’s insane.

Produced by Judd Apatow, “Stormy” includes interviews with a few famous friends like Seth Rogen and Jimmy Kimmel, but it’s primarily told through Stormy’s own voice. She is a fascinating blend of vulnerable and powerful, a woman who has had to live in fear but not allowed it to stop her. Yes, she’s profited in a few places with book deals—a common argument thrown against her is that she’s only in it for the money as if Trump hasn’t used every position of power he’s ever been in as a chance to make some cash—but she’s paid an incredibly high cost for it.

People likely made up their mind about Stormy Daniels a few years ago, but I’m still optimistic enough to believe that someone could watch this interesting documentary and see a story of empowerment, maybe even enough to stand up against the power player in their life that’s trying to destroy them, or just calling them a liar. Whatever one thinks of Stormy Daniels, “Stormy” is a case study in how difficult and dangerous it can be to stand up for what you think is right. And how we need more people willing to do so. 

This review was filed from the premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. It premieres on Peacock on March 18th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Stormy movie poster

Stormy (2024)

109 minutes

Cast

Stormy Daniels as Self

Director

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