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Reality Candidates: Documentaries on the Campaign Trail

By Paul Stekler

George Stephanopoulos (left) and James Carville, who managed Bill Clinton's 1992 US Presidential campaign. From DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' <em>The War Room </em>(1993). Courtesy of Icarus Films

There's a scene in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men where Willie Stark, the Huey Long character running as the reform candidate for Governor of Louisiana, suddenly realizes that he's been set up to siphon enough votes away to ensure victory for the corrupt New Orleans machine's candidate. Building to a rage in front of a crowd of heretofore bored farmers, drawn to his rally by the prospect of free food, he calls them "hicks" for those who rule the state. And he calls himself one too. It's the electrifying turning point in one of the greatest books in American literature. But on film, like most campaigns portrayed by Hollywood, it falls flat.

After 25 years of making films about political campaigns and candidates, I can say for sure that when it comes to capturing campaign politics on film, documentaries do it better. Sure, satires like Bob Roberts are funny. Primary Colors was more like the secret family videos of the Clintons. Robert Altman's hybrid doc/fiction Tanner '88, with a fictional candidate interacting with real aspirants, was certainly unique. And yes, I did love the campaigns in The West Wing. But for me, most Hollywood versions of our electoral process are far less exciting than the real thing. Robert Redford had it right, at the end of his winning California Senate campaign in The Candidate, when he asked, "What do we do now?"

One of the best campaign films, Drew Associates' Primary, was present at the birth of American direct cinema documentaries. Freed from the bounds of tethered camera and sound device, with the newly invented sync sound Nagra tape recorder, Drew and his band of young, soon-to-be-legendary cameramen-Albert Maysles, DA Pennebaker and Richard Leacock-got unprecedented access to Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, crisscrossing wintry Wisconsin in search of Democratic primary votes in 1960. For a real political junkie, I'm still amazed to see JFK, a closet smoker, puffing nervously on a cigarette in a back room; Humphrey telling rows of farmers, dressed in overalls in a small-town high school gym, how the East Coast powers look down their noses at them; a close-up of the clasped hands of an impossibly young-looking Jackie Kennedy as she addresses a campaign crowd. It's as if everyone is totally unaware of the camera. And without any precedent for this kind of filmed coverage, perhaps they were.

And then there's the star quality of Kennedy, better than anything subsequently recorded. Women literally swoon. Children run screaming after him. And in an amazing shot, destined for iconic status, Kennedy enters a huge crowd for a Milwaukee rally, parting supporters like Moses dividing the Red Sea, the camera following him from behind, looking down in wide angle. I once asked Al Maysles how he got the shot. He told me that he was too short to see anything, so he just held the camera over his head, following in JFK's wake, hoping for the best. The filmmakers were literally inventing the genre on the fly.

For filmmakers trying to wrangle a narrative structure out of the messiness of real life, campaigns are made to order. Usually, two candidates face off in a race that has a beginning, a middle and a dramatic end. Someone wins and someone loses on election night (unless, of course, it's Florida 2000). That said, films are also subject to the rules of successful cinema. Are the characters compelling on film? Do you have real access to them? Given that this is about politics, where careers are made of spin and constructed personal narratives are the rule, are your characters introspective enough, real enough, to care about? Or are the surrounding forces-the campaign, the issues, the political movements, even the people around the candidates-the real focus of the film? The best campaign documentaries answer the call on those questions.

It seems like in every election cycle since Primary-at least since the advent of video and the subsequent digital democratization of documentary production-there have been campaign films. Here are of my all-time favorites:

The Campaign (1982)
An episode of the six-part PBS series Middletown, executive produced by Peter Davis (Hearts and Minds), the film, directed by Tom Cohen, spotlighted a campaign for mayor of Muncie, Indiana. On one side was former sheriff Jim Carey, a big, brash Democrat who sings "Happy Days Are Here Again" at rallies and is so at ease with the filmmakers, he does one interview in just sweatpants, no shirt. His opponent, Republican Alan Wilson, is a neophyte, so shy he tells people they don't have to look at his picture as he hands out his literature. I love the scene where Wilson bolts out of a room of consultants who are trying to prep him for a debate. But his radio mic is still on! "God damn it. Six different people have six different suggestions about the way I'm supposed to answer the questions. I will never do this again!" This is real campaign politics: local. And so personally compelling when the loser literally walks over to the victor's headquarters and they meet out in the street.

So You Want to be President (1984)
In 1984, Senator Gary Hart was the long-shot, youthful, Obama-like challenger to the Democratic establishment. Longtime Washington, DC filmmaker Sherry Jones gives us a start-to-finish, seemingly all-access pass to his insurgent presidential campaign. Hart makes his own calls, packs his own bags and goes door-to-door. Before his early upsets of Walter Mondale, he's virtually ignored. Then he's swept up and ultimately flattened by the media and the expectations game. I'll never forget watching Hart's staff, realizing they're helpless without campaign funds to counter a wave of negative ads in a crucial Illinois showdown, at the beginning of the end of their race.

LBJ (1991)
David Grubin's four-hour biography features a wonderful chapter on Lyndon Baines Johnson's 1948 race for Senate. "Landslide Lyndon" wins by 87 votes, the margin supplied by a mysterious ballot box that turns up late in little Alice, Texas. Even better is the footage of LBJ's campaign helicopter, looking like something from a 1930s Flash Gordon film. Campaign aide Jack Pickle, later a congressman himself, laughs about Johnson always tossing his Stetson into the crowd after he got out of the plane-and the hell to pay if Pickle didn't go find that hat and bring it back before they took off for the next small Texas town.

The War Room (1993)
This is the film that made James Carville a star-and also introduced George Stephanopoulos to a national audience. DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus got access to a presidential campaign that was truly a glimpse of politics to come: spin and rapid response coming 24/7 from an actual campaign war room. Even if much of the war room hubbub wasn't always when crucial decisions were made, what they got of Carville and Stephanopoulos was priceless. It's evil fun watching them torture Mandy Grunwald, later Hillary Clinton's ad maker, over the wording of a 30-second ad. And how about Jennifer Flowers and the campaign's success in dodging the bimbo eruptions!

The Perfect Candidate (1996)
Who would have thought that in an election between Oliver North and LBJ son-in-law Chuck Robb, the star of the film-by R.J. Cutler, who produced The War Room, and David Van Taylor-would be North's campaign manager Mark Goodin? Fresh from the disgrace of his own dirty tricks campaign misdeeds in service of the Reagan White House, Goodin seeks redemption with the post-Iran Contra North. But it's Goodin's meltdowns and confessions in front of the camera that are nothing short of amazing. Playing the role of ultimate truth-teller at the end of an ugly losing race, he admits, "We provide entertainment, not solutions."

Street Fight (2005)
First-time filmmaker Marshall Curry, shooting and recording sound himself, literally puts his body in the line of fire as he follows young councilman Cory Booker, running in 2002 for Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Booker may be a Stanford and Yale Law School grad and a Rhodes Scholar, but he's up against a street-smart incumbent, the up-from-the-ghetto Sharpe James, a man so popular he's both mayor and state senator. In showing what it takes, Curry films while being mugged by Sharpe's security detail, who hustle him out of a campaign rally. Booker doesn't win, but in style, he's a precursor to a more successful post-racial candidate: Barack Obama.

My apologies to all the other worthy candidates: Josh Seftel's Taking on the Kennedys (1996), for example, and Journeys with George (2001), Alexandra Pelosi's on-the-bus access to soon-to-be-president George W. Bush. There's a host of American Experience bio films that cover presidents and the elections that put them in the White House. For 20 years, PBS' Frontline series has tackled every presidential race in The Choice. And there are wonderful films about elections in other countries: American consultants-including the aforementioned Carville-gone wild in Bolivia in Rachel Boynton's Our Brand Is Crisis (2005); a clueless Japanese coin dealer hilariously running for city council in Kazuhiro Soda's Campaign (2007); and an even funnier election for hall monitor in a Chinese grade school in Weijun Chen's Please Vote for Me (2007).

Personally, I've been lucky to make a career out of an obsession with politics that goes back to my parents grabbing me off a suburban New Jersey street corner, at seven years of age, where I was stopping every passerby, asking whether they were voting for Kennedy or Nixon. Here are just a few of the magic political campaign moments we've been privileged to film:

Hands That Picked Cotton (1984)
It's Election Day 1982 in the Mississippi Delta, and Ed Brown, H. Rap's brother, is the campaign manager of a candidate running to be the first black congressman in the rural South since Reconstruction. Pointing to a county courthouse where newly enfranchised black voters are lining up to vote, he muses that after surviving a lifetime of exclusion, their approach to the courthouse is like "walking from one century to the next."

George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (2000)
In a tiny apartment in Montgomery, Alabama, Seymour Trammell, once George Wallace's feared hatchet man, who later spent years in jail on state corruption charges, describes the young, then progressive Wallace's reaction to losing an ugly race for Governor in 1958. Pointing his finger straight into the camera lens, he mimics Wallace: "You know why I lost that election, Seymour? I was out-niggered. And I will never be out-niggered again."

Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style (2004)
It's twilight in a parking lot outside a polling place in a small Texas town in 2002, and two candidates for state representative whom we'd followed for months in a particularly negative, personal campaign to represent Lyndon Johnson's old home town have somehow turned up at the same place, at the same time, for the last hour of voting. They literally push each other aside to talk to voters as they walk through the polling door, calling each other names and muttering worse into their radio mics.

And then there's my favorite:

The last 90 minutes of a four-hour film about grassroots political culture across the country, Vote for Me: Politics in America (1996), focuses on a woman running for congress in Asheville, North Carolina. She's charismatic. She sings beautifully at rallies. And she knows next to nothing about campaign politics. "The Political Education of Maggie Lauterer" is all about what she learns during the process, and the toll it takes.
It's the morning after her defeat. Directors/producers Louie Alvarez and Andy Kolker and our shooter, Stephen McCarthy, have spent parts of six months filming Maggie. Now we make a last stop by her deserted campaign headquarters to pick up a stack of campaign ads, and, on a sudden impulse, we start to film. Loose papers and campaign calendars are gently moved in the breeze of an open window. Much later, in an editing room in New York, we try to make sense of what it's like to lose. Should she have gone negative earlier in the race? Should she have gone negative at all? Was she buried in a partisan tidal wave, making her campaign irrelevant? Or were the voters just comfortable with the devil they knew? Having lived through a number of losing campaigns myself, the mix of an empty office and that concluding narration is sad, but also an acknowledgement that in our imperfect democracy, there's always another election-and with it, the promise of redemption.

Why do campaign politics documentaries resonate? Because for those who care about politics, they know these films are real and they have consequences in a world that exists beyond the cinematic image. Documentaries do it better. And in this, the greatest presidential election of our lifetime, who knows what classics are being filmed right now?


Paul Stekler's films include George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (2000), Vote for Me: Politics in America (1996) and Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style (2004). He's the co-producer, with director Mike Kirk and Jim Gilmore, of Frontline's The Choice 2008, which airs October 14.