Electoral Cinema

Posted November 6, 2012

Election day is finally here as our long campaign season draws to a close. If you’re back from the polls and looking to fill the void left by the missing the attack ads, some electoral cinema may be just the ticket.

Filmmakers have been aiming their cameras at the gears of our democracy for a long time now, creating some of the most important works in the history of documentary. First and foremost is Robert Drew’s Primary (1960), a groundbreaking film that launched the American Direct Cinema movement. Primary hits the road alongside Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphery as they travel from rally to rally, grinding out the late winter of 1960 in the closely contested state of Wisconsin. Taking advantage of new technologies in lightweight cameras and synchronized sound, Primary observes the speeches and hand shakes up close, creating the intimacy Richard Leacock famously called “the feeling of being there”.

Primary was created by a Direct Cinema dream team. Director Robert Drew’s collaborators included Albert and David Maysles, Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker, who all went on to become legends in their own rights. Decades later, Pennebaker, alongside co-director Chris Hegedus, plunged even deeper into the nitty-gritty of our politics with The War Room (1993). Denied direct access to then candidate Bill Clinton, the filmmakers found their stars in his campaign managers, the charismatic “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville and the enthusiastic George Stephanopoulos. The War Room peeks into their messy backrooms over the entire course of the 1992 presidential campaign. As the frantic staff improvises the latest talking points and agonizes over new poll numbers, the film becomes surprisingly suspenseful, despite our knowing the outcome. You can check out The War Room on Hulu Plus as part of their content from The Criterion Collection.

POV is sharing an excellent film clearly in the Direct Cinema tradition of Primary and The War Room. R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s A Perfect Candidate (1996) follows Oliver North during his 1994 bid for the U.S. senate seat from Virginia, a mere seven years after he admitted to “misleading” Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. From the gun range to the pulpit, Ollie and his team seek the moral high ground against his scandal laden opponent Charles Robb. The results are both amusing and disturbing, as voters are left, in one man’s poignant words, with a choice between two diseases.

Finally, if you think national politics gets ugly, have we got a story for you. Director Marshall Curry narrates Street Fight (T/F 2006), a true David and Goliath tale. The doc follows then up and coming community organizer Cory Booker in his 2002 attempt to become mayor of Newark, New Jersey. In his way lies the impressive political machine of 12 year incumbent Sharpe James. Once James realizes Booker is for real all bets are off, and he unleashes a series of dirty tricks that has to be seen to be believed. Luckily the good people at SnagFilms are sharing Street Fight online.

All these films provoke similar questions. If politics is theater, just where does the performance end? Do we ever catch a glimpse of what a candidate is like “for real”? And how will we know it when we see it? Perhaps Direct Cinema brings us closer, but is it ever close enough?