From Political Tourists to Perfect Candidates... Documentaries Hit the Campaign Trail This Election Year
While the network news divisions pared down their coverage of the Democrat and Republican Conventions this year, over 50 documentary filmmakers received credentials to cover the events. How many of the films that result from this coverage will be seen by a wide audience is debatable, but right now political documentaries are hot and are capturing attention from the media and audiences alike.
Fueling their popularity is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. "There was never that big of an audience for political documentaries, but Michael Moore made them cool," says Alexandra Pelosi, a former television news producer, now filmmaker. "Nobody wanted to talk to me early on when Journeys with George [her documentary about Governor George W. Bush's 2000 campaign] came out, but this year I had all this attention months before my new film came out."
HBO commissioned Pelosi to follow the Democratic candidates from the Iowa Caucuses through Super Tuesday and the Democratic Convention. The results of her long road trip are captured in Diary of a Political Tourist, which premieres on HBO October 11.
" Fahrenheit 9/11 is a lightening rod film right now," says R.J. Cutler, producer of The War Room (1993; DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, dirs.), which takes an inside look at Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Cutler also directed and produced (with David Van Taylor) A Perfect Candidate (1997), which follows the fiercely fought 1994 Senate campaign in Virginia between Oliver North and Charles Rob. "But there's a tendency in our culture to draw huge conclusions from that, as if nothing existed before this moment. But politics as storytelling was born a long time ago, in Shakespeare's time and even before."
Historically, politics has always been a hotbed of drama, the victories and defeats as compelling as those in any sports arena, and the strategy and competition often much nastier. What's different is that more filmmakers are drawn to the subject matter today, and they are finding homes for their films in theaters and on television.
"If you were to ask someone to list their ten favorite political documentaries, pre-2000, there wouldn't have been that many The War Room, The Campaign [Tom Cohen, dir.; Peter Davis, prod.]but now there are a lot more films," says Paul Stekler, who has been making award-winning political documentaries for 20 years.
Certainly the A-list would include many of his films: George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, (2000; with Daniel McCabe); Vote for Me: Politics in America (1996) and Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (1992; with Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker).
Most of Stekler's films have aired on PBS. His new film, Last Man Standing, which aired on PBS' P.O.V. series in July, analyzes how Texas' electorate went from Democrat to Republican, where prior to 2002, not a single statewide office was held by a Democrat. Stekler focuses on a local political race for representative between a Christian conservative incumbent embroiled in scandal and his 24-year-old Democratic challenger, who ends up winning in a huge upset.
While many films right now are focusing on the national campaign, Stekler, who teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin, chose a "smaller" election, but featured writer Molly Ivins, former Texas Governor Ann Richards and Karl Rove, Bush's strategist, to provide the big picture view. "Smaller stories can sometimes be best to tell universal truths," Stekler maintains. "By understanding this race in Texas it helps to understand what is going on in swing districts across the United States and what it takes to win."
Certainly in an election year, political documentaries seek to capitalize on the race for president. But this year most of the documentaries definitely slant toward the Democrats' point of view. "This is a highly divided and more intensely engaged electorate than at any time maybe since the Vietnam War era," Cutler notes. "The popular culture reflects its citizenry so you've got television shows, rock stars giving concerts and political documentaries that question the status quo."
Taking up where Pelosi leaves off in Diary of a Political Tourist, George Butler profiles the Democratic nominee—and his longtime friend—in Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. With narrative provided by Doug Brinkley's best-selling book Tour of Duty, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and was released theatrically through THINKFilm in select cities.
Almost a bookend to Fahrenheit 9/11 is The Hunting of the President, which had its theatrical release in July. Made by Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry, the film explores the scandals and attacks during the Clinton presidency.
Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob have made Bush's Brain, about Rove, the man who guided Bush to governor of Texas and then to US president, using tactics to win at all costs. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater, Bush's Brain was released theatrically in late August and September in select cities.
"Initially we hoped to have the documentary air on a local television station, and we were hoping to get into South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, which we did," Mealey recalls. "But the film had three sold-out screenings, with thousands of people waiting in line. Our timing just couldn't be better."
The strategy of what goes into the making of a president or any candidate makes for compelling drama—think of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos in The War Room. Rove may look like a marshmallow, but he's got, as many in the film state, a real dark side, one that goes for the kill. In Bush's Brain, the filmmakers illustrate the power of what is called a "whispering" campaign, which gathers steam and then hits the media. This occurred during the 2000 primary contest with Senator John McCain, when there were allegations that he was mentally unstable due to his having been a prisoner of war; then the talk shifted to his wife's addiction to painkillers and to their adopted Bangladeshi daughter.
"When George Bush lost New Hampshire, something had to be done, because when you lose one state it's devastating, so you have to go after your opponent, in this case it was McCain," Mealey maintains. The filmmakers weren't trying to show that Karl Rove is bad. "What we wanted to do is show people that what happens in the past happens in the future. Now all of a sudden we're hearing that Kerry's war medals aren't valid. Where did that come from?"
"Campaigning and governing are different things," Cutler points out. "Governing is about bringing people together, but campaigning is about finding your base and holding onto it, as well as shattering your opponent's base." Running a campaign is a big part of a new reality series, American Candidate, that Cutler created and executive produced for Showtime. The series, which premiered on August 1 and runs through October 10, follows ten people who compete to serve as President of the United States.
"It's a complete fallacy that Americans are apathetic about politics," says Cutler. "They may be uninspired by their leaders, but they care a great deal about their nation, their government."
Ironically, it was voter apathy that inspired Cutler to create American Candidate —specifically the low voter turnout in the 2000 election, where only one in four eligible voters bothered to go to the polls. While all the filmmakers hope to engage more people in the political process, Cutler did so literally. Casting was a huge factor for the series; producers chose people of various ages, backgrounds and political views. For example, there's Chrissy Gephardt, daughter of Dick Gephardt, who is gay and who champions health care, women's health and many gay and lesbian causes; Park Gillespie, a devout Christian and married father of four who is a school teacher in North Carolina; and Richard Mack, a pro-gun advocate, Mormon and former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona. On each episode a candidate is voted off the show, until one is chosen. The series also features well-known political consultants who help the candidates on their image, ad creation and media coaching.
"The convention of reality competition shows is not that dissimilar from political conflict and presidential campaigning," Cutler affirms. "It excited me to imagine a populist competition. Our show fits firmly into what is a very highly charged moment in American politics."
It's no coincidence that Sundance Channel is airing a sequel to Tanner 88, Robert Altman's popular, groundbreaking 1988 miniseries for HBO based on the fictional campaign of Jack Tanner, a Democratic Presidential hopeful played by Michael Murphy; Cynthia Nixon played his daughter, Alex Tanner. Altman is back on board for Tanner on Tanner, along with Gary Trudeau, who wrote the original episodes, and Murphy and Nixon. Like K Street, the HBO show from Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney that blurred the line between fact and fiction, Tanner on Tanner, which airs from October 5-26, finds Jack Tanner dining with real politicians who seem to play along. A further twist is that Alex Tanner is now a documentary filmmaker making a film about her father's campaign, and she teaches documentary filmmaking at The New School in New York City.
"There's this bizarre weaving together of the media, politics and, to some extent, the fictional world," says Adam Pincus, senior vice president of on-air original programming at Sundance Channel.
A common thread running through all of these films and television shows is an examination of the disconnect between the responsibilities of the job and what it takes to be elected. "HBO wanted me to document what it takes to run for president in this country," Pelosi notes. "I was trying to document this idea of the job application versus the job description. The idea that you have to go to the Iowa State Fair and eat deep-fried Twinkies, or get in your RV with your whole family and go traveling through the bowels of these small towns—what does that have to do with being the leader of the free world?"
"What this movie is really about is this system and how dysfunctional it really is," she continues. "Approximately 11 percent of the people that can vote in Iowa determine who the nominee of a party is going to be."
Certainly the campaign trail works well for sound-bite television journalism where visuals are very important, but while kissing babies may look good on television, what does it really mean? Pelosi worked at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 for her mother, Nancy Pelosi, California Democratic Congresswoman and House Minority Leader, where she quickly learned that campaigning is about feeding the press. She later worked in television covering politics in Washington, DC, then spent 18 months with George Bush and journalists on the campaign trail, covering one of the closest and most controversial races in history.
"There's a wide gap between the way politics really is and how it looks on television," Pelosi maintains. "It's about what the press sees and not about what is actually happening." She posits that perhaps due to September 11, or the rush to war in Iraq, the public has "woken up" and realizes it's not hearing or receiving the full story. "The biggest hero in my movie is Candy Crowley from CNN," Pelosi notes. "She used to say there's no such thing as a real moment in politics because it's not in the candidates' interest to be real. So the candidates become caricatures and they never go off message."
What makes documentaries so compelling is that they provide a more in-depth look at a candidate, going behind the curtain, breaking through the mask. "There's always the question of whether what we're seeing is the actual person or the image," Stekler points out. "Campaigns are about crafting an image because there's no way that every single voter can meet every single person."
But in the end, it can be hard to know what people really stand for. "I still wonder whether George Wallace asking for forgiveness at the end of his career was real," Stekler allows. "I tried to let the viewers figure this out for themselves, but the question sometimes becomes, 'Is it more important to win or to stand for something?'"
What's refreshing about American Candidate is that the candidates are passionate about their respective causes, which range from civil rights to animal rights to gay and lesbian rights to the legalization of marijuana-in stark contrast to the national stage, where the candidates reveal little of themselves. Pelosi recalls an incident on the campaign trail when the media in San Francisco asked John Edwards what he felt about gay marriage. He responded, "Guys, you know I can't tell you that-what I really think-because it's going to burn me."
So, there's this tension between the press and the candidate, says Pelosi, where the reporters want information and the candidate is trying to hold it back. There's also a "symbiotic" relationship, because the candidates need to be good on television, and television news needs the candidates.
On that score, George Bush was a much better character in Journeys with George than John Kerry was in Diary of a Political Tourist. "It seems the more simple someone is, the more they bring to the table," Pelosi observes. "I loved Joe Leiberman because he was great for my movie. Every time I saw him he sang a show tune. I loved Dick Gephardt because every time I saw him he would sit down and eat a pie. I had very selfish ambitions. My connection to the candidates were more about my movie than the future of America and who the Democrats chose as their nominee."
But Kerry kept her at arm's length. "Since many Republicans considered Journeys with George a valentine to George Bush-which is odd, since I have good credentials for being a Democrat—Kerry and others were very leery of me and my little camera."
For Altman, there's a dual edge to what he calls "an epidemic of filmmaking, where almost anyone can buy a camera and film a documentary." There's a surreal moment in Tanner on Tanner where Alex Tanner, on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, films her father for her documentary while, at the same time, Kerry's daughter, Alexandra, is filming a documentary about her father's presidential campaign. What's more, one of Alex's students has a camera and is following her around, and of course Altman is filming everything.
"We really want to tear apart this evolution that's happened with documentary films, where they move out of the kind of mainstream, white-paper documentaries that we all grew up with on television to a straight-ahead advocacy agitprop that is so popular now," said Trudeau during the Television Critics Association press tour in July. "The difference in those two approaches will be under our microscope."
Many documentary filmmakers, including Moore, Pelosi and Morgan Spurlock ( Super Size Me ), are part of their films. "It's almost like performance art, where they're exploring something through personal experience," Pincus observes. "Sometimes it's documented for a political agenda, but they all have a distinct point of view."
Moore openly admits he wants to change people's opinions. The DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11 will be released on October in hopes that even more people will be able to watch it before the election. Pelosi's goal, however, isn't advocacy, and she doesn't feel her film has a political or editorial stance. "I really don't like first-person documentaries, and being in my own movies," she admits. "But in this case I'm the tour guide."
Altman notes, "When everybody has a camera it's like looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you and you keep seeing yourself in the mirror, so it becomes very incestuous."
But he's very happy to be standing in the reflection.
"We got really, really lucky with the fact that documentary films are now front and center in pop culture," Altman continues. "It's astonishing what Michael Moore has wrought this year; we and his many competitors are just riding that wave."
Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.