One of the highlighted entries (garnering the coveted June 22nd closing night slot) at this year’s AFI Docs (a.k.a. the festival formerly known as SilverDocs) is the U.S. premiere, after unreeling at Canada’s HotDocs Film Festival in late April, of “Caucus,” AJ Schnack’s behind-the-scenes look at the 2011 Republican primary race in Iowa. “Convention,” Schnack’s earlier coverage of Denver’s 2008 Democratic confab, which world premiered at SilverDocs in 2009, was obviously a good exercise for the director and his crew back then, having to cut down 90 hours of footage into a 95-minute feature.
Similar in tone to Robert Drew’s remarkable 1960 piece “Primary,” about the Hubert Humphrey-John Kennedy battle for Democratic voters in Wisconsin, this 104-minute effort tackles the GOP hopefuls as they traipse about America’s Heartland. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Congressman Ron Paul, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former (i.e., disgraced and now reborn) House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, and even Republic Vice President nominee Sarah Palin (greeting the crowds but, thankfully, not declaring in the race) get their moments of pain and gain on the light and dark side of the 29th State.
Starting at the Iowa State Fair in August 2011 and pressing forward through the Ames Straw Poll (which Bachmann won), various debates and gatherings, and the final balloting on January 3rd, 2012, the film occasionally offers up some pleasant bar charts with the ever-changing percentage tallies, newspaper clippings, and network television sound bytes. As for the contenders, Santorum was polling in sub-freezing numbers with five months to go in the Corn Belt campaign–and a last-minute thaw, even victory, seemed to be within his grasp as political pollsters and pundits for the Des Moines Register consider his miraculous ascent on the eve of decision day. The quixotic, Iowa-born Bachmann and her conservative Christian agenda (repeal Obamacare, close down EPA, ban fire, etc.) promises an appearance by Randy Travis to her supporters, but leaves one autograph-seeker sad and depressed when the candidate can’t find a pen. Others on the caucus carousel line up in Schnack’s crosshairs. Poor Mitt Romney’s first appearance in the film ends with a loud discussion about Social Security with a angry face in the crowd. Never dropping his smile, Pawlenty, flipping pork chops, exasperatingly sidesteps a reporter’s question about quitting if he doesn’t get the straw poll votes.
Politics must be a self-deflating occupation and Schnack captures the determined push me/pull me of the power-hungry losers in the straw poll. One person wins and the rest put on a smile-behind-a-sad-face. Some weather the situation well. Others don’t. Yet, in the quest to be Commander in Chief, even if you lose you’ll probably end up with a speaking tour, or better. Pawlenty, curled up in fourth place, dropped out and soon became CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable.
At times, I felt like I was watching an Alexander Payne film, but then the pomposity of the Republican right turned reality into drudgery. The documentary takes a generally too even-keeled, cinema-verité approach, with a occasionally whimsical score showcasing the bumps in the Republican package. You know all the horses (some might say horses’ a***s) in the race, whether early out of the gate (Santorum) or late to the show (Romney) and followed them on the nightly news during the Presidential campaign.
Schnack adds some color to their pallid complexions. The omnipresent camera does grab a few “enlightening” moments (depending on your party affiliation), including Brad, a man in one of Bachmann’s crowds, who berates the politician for using Jesus to teach people to hate gays. Bachmann’s conservative stance against gay marriage notwithstanding, she comes back with her usual response under such confrontations. “I love Jesus. I’m glad that your here, but I’m sorry it’s not true.” Then on to the next handshake. Bachmann would later reveal, when chatting about her 2nd and 3rd grade school experiences, that she was the last one in her class to learn how to tell time. Of course, her lateness at a speaking engagement (earlier in the film) in her home town of Waterloo, shows she needs a refresher course. Or a better watch.
This isn’t a pulse-pounding documentary, but a well structured slice of election life. What “Caucus” shows best is that politics isn’t a very glorious job. Most of the contestants appear as stiff as we know them to be. Only Santorum comes off as being close to genuine. “It is real,” he confides to a campaign manager as the final poll shows off a momentous burst of support, which the director nails home with an amped up REO Speedwagon standard “Roll With the Changes” as the end credits roll. (Stay through them for the truly final election results and quaint send off.)