Reality Candidates: Documentaries on the Campaign Trail

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
, 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
introspect 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.


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
, 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

My apologies to all the other worthy
candidates: Josh Seftel's Taking on the
(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

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

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?

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.