Lost in the Movies: Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

First things first, congratulations to me for my 100th post.

That important matter out of the way, let me start by saying this was probably the most sheerly enjoyable movie I've watched so far in the political series. It is very short - 1 hour, 22 minutes - but packs volumes into its running time. And its premise is such a preposterously perfect underdog tale (at least as told - more on that later) that the old cliche "Hollywood couldn't make this up" rings true here. When introduced to Jeff Smith (he even shares the same name as Capra's protagonist) in the first few minutes of this documentary, I was inclined to scoff. Smith, though 30, looks about 5-10 years younger. He's short, slightly awkward, and speaks with a high-pitched lisp. As he drives around in his little car, talking about how he decided to run for the congressional seat that Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was vacating, the candidate admits that even his parents and brother won't donate money to his quixotic campaign. Coupled with the lo-fi production values (the movie appears to have been shot on a consumer-grade mini-DV cam), it seemed clear that this was a tiny little production which found its way to Netflix - who distributed it - on the basis of a clever title and perhaps some scruffy charm. But soon both the movie and the candidate have shown they're not to be underestimated.

In 2004, the departure of Gephardt led ten Democrats to file for their party's primary. Most were no-names, and none more so than Jeff Smith, who had never held public office and was a teacher at a local college (though most people mistook him for a student). The standout, and the presumptive nominee, was Russ Carnahan. Apparently the lamest of politicians, he offers neither fresh ideas nor anything approaching a compelling delivery. But his last name is Carnahan and with it he wraps up a good deal of the funding and the endorsements; his parents were both successful politicians, and his mother is a sitting senator.

Jeff recruits a staff in their early twenties, with no prior campaign experience but with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Eventually he wins the endorsement of Howard Dean and the support of the emerging netroots. This development is unfortunately glossed over; it was obviously a huge game-changer for him, but we don't get any sense of how it came about (though Jeff does say he met Dean several years earlier at some sort of conference). However, we see how the campaign started - in a windowless, decrepit cinderblock room, with 4 inexperienced kids on the staff, and a candidate who didn't look or sound like anybody's idea of a winner. He may have gotten some lucky breaks along the way, but the movie makes it clear that Jeff also worked really hard and is a good public speaker, voice aside.

At campaign events, in personal appearances, and side-by-side with Carnahan at public forums, Jeff displays a gift for framing issues succinctly and effectively, coupled with killer lines and obvious conviction. He also has a close connection to St. Louis' black community, having participated in athletic clubs outside his own jurisdiction as a kid. Showing the growth of his campaign from nothing to something (cleverly, since a close look reveals that the doc got underway only after he started getting traction), Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? may more closely mirror The Candidate than the movie whose title it directly references. But the Robert Redford film displayed a cynical ambivalence about its hero's rise to power whereas Can Mr. Smith is wholly laudatory. One senses the possibility that there's more to the story; occasional friction appears between Jeff's earliest staffers and the slicker activists who come on board later. And initially, I resented the film's elision of these tensions. But in the end, the underdog narrative proved so compelling that I was completely wrapped up in it. There may be a truly great (probably much longer and more ambiguous) movie buried in here somewhere, but what we've got is so entertaining that it's hard to resent the prettying up.

Director/cameraman/editor Frank Popper, accompanied by the tweaking of credited co-writers Matt Coen, Mike Kime, shapes an extremely effective and engaging narrative out of his material. The cutting is very sharp - I can't imagine how long their rough cut must have been - and the structure is even stronger, pivoting between Jeff's steady rise, the occasional missteps, and the reminders of how far he has to go. Russ Carnahan helps with his hapless public appearances, refusal to engage Jeff in debate, and devious mailouts (including one that says Jeff and a female pro-life Democrat are "in bed together" - complete with photos of an unmade bed). But Jeff himself is the real clincher - he radiates sincerity, and manages to be energetic and polite at the same time, even as he's getting shut down for the 1329th time in a personal phone call.

Jeff Smith is very solidly a Howard Dean Democrat, which I am not - yet the movie's drive coupled with Jeff's curiously charismatic uncharisma had me in the palm of its hand, rooting for Jeff all the way. Still, I'd be interested to see and hear more about the race from an outside perspective. There is a - fair - concern on many voters' part that Jeff lacks the experience to maneuver his way through Congress, and his attacks on Bush are seen as "extreme" though I suspect they would not seem so extreme today. And while his negative attacks on Carnahan seem legitimate enough, and Carnahan's rejoinders ineffective, I'm sure there's more to the story than just that.

But aside from its compelling personal narrative, there's an interesting political component to Jeff's campaign as well. Following the 2002 slaughter of Democrats and the president's (briefly) popular war thereafter, there was a lot of hand-wringing about where the party should go from there. Jeff is as perfect an example as you could find of the party's "progressive" wing - emphasizing issues like health care, highly critical of Bush's foreign policy, yet attempting to outflank him on the right on fiscal discipline, often strident in its attacks yet maintaining an overall positive tenor. I've never much liked the "progressive" tag - with its Henry Wallace/fellow traveler connotations - and was always skeptical about this direction, which seemed a bit too self-affirming to be truly effective, electorally.

And indeed, the progressive standard-bearer Howard Dean never won a single primary or caucus, and Jeff (and I'd suspect many other candidates like him) ultimately does not prove successful. But he does come very close, and while Carnahan will win his safely Democratic district in the fall, John Kerry will lose and the soul-searching will continue. Where does Barack Obama stand in relation to all of this? The 2003/2004 surge of proud, active, young progressives started to build the new base which delivered Obama victory in his long primary race against Hillary. Indeed, Obama appeared on the national scene the very summer that Deaniacs were fighting for various "progressive" Democrats across the nation and Moveon.org was building up steam. But does he really represent that wing of the party?

I would say no, not exactly. His convention speech was a political breakthrough because it sidestepped all of the back-and-forth angst of the Democratic Party - should we co-opt Bush's cause? how stridently should we attack him? - by saying there was no "red America, or blue America," but rather the "United States of America." This unifying principle - one which initially made most conservatives favor Obama before it became clear he could beat Hillary, and probably a Republican - struck a different note than the defiantly left-wing (with a few conservative/moderate co-options) chorus of progressives. With his passion, ability to think outside the box, and generally pretty left-leaning agenda (though he was to Hillary's right on health care), Obama speaks to the progressives and they've obviously been energized by his rhetoric. But in demeanor, approach, and appeal, he is not exactly one of them.

In 2006, the Democrats won back the House and Senate precisely by rejecting the progressives' fighting anger and tacking to the center with candidates like Jim Webb. I think this is the right track, admittedly in part because I'm a center-leaning independent myself, but also because progressive are fooling themselves when they try to pretend that the country in any large part leans towards one side of the political spectrum and because, as the Republicans become weaker and weaker, there's a lot up for grabs (the military vote for one, which conservatives have shat all over). But that same year, Jeff finally won a race, this time for the more humble office of State Senate. The movie ends with his victory, and though we're cheered to see him win and he (noticeably a few years older) seems relieved, after following his hard-working, exhausting campaigns so closely, we can easily imagine him taking a deep breath, looking around, and wondering, ala Bill McKay, "What do we do now?"

Good luck, Jeff Smith.

Update: Within a year of this review, Smith was convicted of violations of electoral law stemming back to the 2004 campaign documented in this film - a sorry end to his underdog tale, albeit a confirmation of my suspicion that there was more to this story than the sunny surface.


James Hansen said...

This was directed by a graduate of Webster University...my undergrad alma mater! Woo hoo! I actually haven't seen it, but have been meaning to. Glad to hear a good report and congrats on 100 posts (already!) I don't know how you do it!

Joel Bocko said...

I would definitely recommend this one - it's very entertaining, and also very short. I was wondering about the background of the movie - do you know how (and when) the Webster grad got involved with the project? It seemed like Smith had gotten some traction before the doc got going, but I'd be interested to know where his turning point was - and why the filmmakers got involved.

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