Political Campaigns, up until the 2010s, were fairly static. There was a mold they fit into, involving flooding the television airwaves in particular states (Iowa, New Hampshire, etc.) with the likeness of the particular candidate the campaign was supporting. Then, along comes Twitter. Founded in 2006 and popularized by 2012, the social media platform became the prominent place to play soundbites, attack the candidates, and satirize their idea, all of which politics thrive on. If you’re competent with Twitter, you can really elevate the awareness around a political statement, message, or candidate. All of this brings us to director Skye Wallin’s American Gadfly.
Famed for his recitation of the Pentagon Papers concerning the atrocities of Vietnam into the Senate’s public record in 1971, Mike Gravel of Alaska has been an irritating, annoying gadfly of political personality. Having chosen to run for president in 2007, he was both celebrated and reviled for his needling of front runners Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama on all matters concerning war in the 2007 Democratic debates.
American Gadfly then introduces us to Henry Williams and David Oks. The friends and high school seniors from Westchester County in New York are discouraged by the glut of moderate and centrist candidates crawling out of the woodwork for the 2020 presidential election cycle. As such, they conspire with their friends to enlist Gravel for one last run. Their goal is less to have Senator Gravel secure the nomination as it is to have him sanction their plan of winning him a spot in the Democratic party debates.
“They spearhead the messaging to convince former Representative John Delaney to drop out…”
Being youths in the 2010s, they, of course, are very conversant in social media, especially Twitter. After Senator Gravel agrees to run with Williams and Oks as his campaign chairs, he hands them his Twitter handle. As demonstrated throughout the documentary, Oks and Williams are expert-level political trolls. We witness as they bring Gravel’s central issue of an end to forever wars to the forefront of discussion. They spearhead the messaging to convince former Representative John Delaney to drop out of the primaries. Further, they back Marianne Williamson after she assists the Gravel campaign to achieve the debate qualifying 65,000 donors.
The power of a statement, reduced to 140 characters, requires absolute creativity from the person crafting the tweet. Williams, Oks, and their social media arm are devastating in their ability to satirize and troll the other politicians and their campaigns. The sheer chutzpah on display struck me. Viewers are advised that they may giggle hard enough to snort a beverage out their nose if they’re drinking something.
Of the crop of documentaries I’ve seen in the past few years, American Gadfly stands out as extraordinary. Seek it out if you like political histories or just want a great laugh. You will not be disappointed, either way.
"…stands out as extraordinary."