The documentary A Perfect Candidate is like Al Gore doing the macarena at the Democratic National Convention--proof that political satire has become impossible.
Under the opening titles, we see a combo called the Angry Young Pachyderms at the Virginia Republican Convention, performing a ditty called Don't You Know It's Your Fault?, a sneering diatribe against compassion for the hungry, far more odious than any of the songs Tim and David Robbins wrote for Bob Roberts. And if Bob had sung the same lyrics, we would have dismissed that film as liberal extremism. Even the crudest conservative wouldn't stoop this low, we'd think--at least not publicly. Oh, yes they would, it turns out.
A Perfect Candidate, co-directed by political-documentary vets David Van Taylor (TV Nation) and R.J. Cutler (The War Room), chronicles the 1994 Virginia Senate race--a wacky bout if ever there was one. In the Democrats' corner, wearing his incumbency and little else, was Senator Charles "Chuck" Robb; in the Republicans' corner, wearing his former Marine rank and a lot of patriotic TV grandstanding, was Iran-contra felon Oliver "Ollie" North. What a selection.
Cutler and Van Taylor focus, inevitably and rightly, more on North than on Robb. They open the film with clips of North's notorious testimony before Congress in which he airily declared that he had perjured himself, and in which he asserted that he thought diverting Iranian money to the contras was "a neat idea." The film then shifts forward seven years, and we see North nominated as the Virginia GOP's candidate for Senate. Satire, be not proud.
But even North himself is not the star. That role falls, as the film progresses, to North's campaign strategist Mark Goodin, a jolly fellow who had tried a few years earlier to engineer an "outing" of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley. Goodin's ruthless campaign viewpoint is contrasted with that of Don Baker, a fairly liberal Washington Post reporter covering the story.
If North and Robb fade to the background, it's probably because they come across as two of the emptiest suits ever. North has a certain jarhead handsomeness as long as he retains that prim, hurt-feelings look from his Iran-contra days. But the minute he tries to smile, his features become a sickly mess. He may indeed have been a perfect candidate in modern campaign terms--in video clips and sound bites--but in this film, on the podium or off, he seems to be about as uninteresting a person as could be imagined.
Except, maybe, for Chuck Robb.
There's a creepy scene early on in A Perfect Candidate in which a very small boy is handed a firearm at a North rally and asked what he shoots with it. "Clay pigeons and Democrats!" the boy says. He could have had a field day with Robb, who appears to be both.
Robb first shows up after Goodin explains that all North needs to draw a crowd is to stand still for ten minutes, and that Robb would give one of his testicles to have the same quality.
To prove the point, we then see Robb looking in vain for constituent flesh to press in front of a rural Laundromat. We see him wandering the aisles of a supermarket, interrupting people as they shop to shake their hands. The folks' responses are friendly--you get the feeling they'll vote for him--but they return to their shopping with no more excitement than if they'd seen their next-door neighbor. The camera then follows the tall, bloodhound-faced senator as he goes galumphing on down the aisle, a lonely figure. Again, satire pales--does Robert Altman's Tanner have any scene with this sort of Beckettesque humor?
Sequences like these are intercut with footage of North delivering massively dull speeches to big crowds of the same sort of wide-eyed, star-struck white people one sees in Rush Limbaugh's TV audience. These scenes, in turn, are contrasted with the anger and giggly obscenity of Goodin and gang's strategy meetings.
It's probable that Robb's campaign was no less petty and vulgar behind the scenes, but we see little of it. This will open A Perfect Candidate to charges that it's partisan, which it certainly is--it was clearly conceived in plain disbelief over North's candidacy. But in basic human terms, Robb and North come across as equally (and extremely) ridiculous. Either Cutler and Van Taylor managed better access to the inner workings of North's campaign, or--as is conceivable--whatever behind-the-scenes footage they captured of Robb, et al., was simply too lifeless to emphasize, even for laughs.
The film has a loose, exploratory feel, as if the directors were discovering what it was about while they made it, and this is far more rare in documentaries than it should be. The theme that emerges goes beyond the usual observation that politics is marketing--that's been done, and done well. Instead, A Perfect Candidate gets at something subtler, and, to my mind, at least tentatively optimistic: the Right's deep, chronic underestimation of the voter's capacity to separate what is politically substantive from what is not.
Robb was alleged to have a stereotypically Democratic dark side--a weakness for bimbos and parties at which cocaine was used. North's campaign insisted that the difference between the Iran-contra monkeyshines and Robb's transgressions was one of "motives." Thus North's colossal arrogance, ineptitude and clear disregard for Congress should be dismissed because it was well-intentioned, and Robb's private sleaziness should be counted because he did it for fun. The assumption, in other words, is that all we want is to elect the "nicest" person. One of North's aides says that what isn't always understood is that the American people "like Ollie North because of Iran-contra."
He's right--a lot of Americans naively considered North a hero or, at least, a patsy. But "liking" him or feeling sorry for him was not the same as supposing him fit for office. In the film, the tide seems to turn against North when he tells a high school student that he didn't actually lie to Congress. It contradicts what he said in the actual hearings, and when he says it, there's a shot of Goodin on the sidelines, his eyes closed in preparation for the coming migraine.
The reason it seems like such a mortal moment isn't that North lies--everyone knows politicians lie--but that it's the lie of a fantasist, a man in his own world, a man who knows he couldn't possibly have done anything wrong. By contrast, Robb's silly assertion that he's never told a lie at all seems almost credible, since he has such a hard time putting together a coherent sentence of any kind.
This happy notion--that maybe Americans are more concerned with the sanity and effectiveness of their leaders than with their personal values--must, again, be approached with caution. North was by no means hopeless as a candidate. One of the tale's stranger twists is Post reporter Baker's half-embarrassed confession: "He's won me over." After so many years of being disillusioned by career pols, he's dazzled by North's lack of guile.
Robb won narrowly, and his victory may have been due less to North's blunders than to the African-American vote, which he landed when he was endorsed by an old rival, Douglas Wilder, a black former Virginia governor who had been running against him as an independent.
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Quite possibly the funniest single shot in A Perfect Candidate comes after this endorsement. It's of Robb, surely one of the most Caucasian humans ever to have walked the planet, sheepishly bobbing his head in time to a gospel choir at a rally. The idea that this funkless man we see here could party and chase women is sort of inspiring, a triumph of the human spirit.
Yet the disparity between the respective scandals of the two candidates remains lost on Goodin--he never gets it. Toward the end, he has a candid moment in which he expresses what sound like sincere doubts about what the modern style of campaigning may be doing to our government. After North concedes his defeat, Goodin changes his tune, however. At film's end, he's left bursting with rage at what he sees, after everything, as his mistake: He hasn't campaigned negatively enough.
These final seconds of A Perfect Candidate are so good--so funny, sad and human--that in a fiction film we might find them admirable but a bit too clever, too pat. Maybe we should all start watching more documentaries.
A Perfect Candidate:
Directed by R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor; with Mark Goodin, Don Baker, Charles Robb, Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy, Douglas Wilder and Bill Clinton. Unrated. (At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)