AFI Fest 2013
By Linc Leifeste | November 22, 2013
Director: A.J. Schnack
If, like many people on both sides of the aisle, you’ve done your best to wipe any trace of memory of the 2012 Republican field of Presidential candidates from your mind, you might think that A.J. Schnack’s oddly enthralling documentary Caucus might not be for you. And, to be fair, spending an hour and 45 minutes watching people like Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty stump, debate and song-and-dance across all ninety-nine counties of the great state of Iowa in hopes of laying claim to winning the nation’s first Presidential primary victory, in the process proving their Presidential viability, doesn’t sound all that appealing. But it’s a testament to Schnack’s vision and editing skills that the story of this odd and overly-laughable field of candidates stumping in front of a people that could not be more white or more uptight drew me in so completely from start to finish.
From the film’s first shots at the Iowa State Fair, just days ahead of the Republican Straw Poll in Ames, on through the closing sequences filmed on the night of the Iowa Caucuses, it’s stunning to witness the intimate nature of the acess that Schnack and his cameras were given. Equally striking is the film’s observational nature, which leaves the candidates, sometimes their spouses, and the voters of Iowa to do the talking. There is a complete lack of editorializing by Schnack, at least overt editorializing. Obviously, his choices about what footage to present and what footage to leave on the cutting room floor and how he chose to string those clips together are, in and of themselves, editorial choices. For example, Ron Paul probably gets the least footage of any of the candidates and the footage that we see includes a few moments of one press conference and a humorous clip of him climbing into an awaiting mini-van and then struggling (unsuccessfully) for what feels like minutes to figure out how to close the sliding door.
If there’s a star of the show, it’s Rick Santorum. The heart and soul of the film is the story of the underdog’s early struggles in polling in Iowa and the ways that his dogged determination in stumping tirelessly across the state, matched with his perceived sincerity, eventually pay dividends as he goes on to defeat frontrunner and eventual nominee Mitt Romney. It’s a testament to the film’s quiet power that it actually had me feeling slight admiration, if not something at times akin to sympathy, for Santorum, someone whose faith-driven political views I have no sympathy for.
Of course, Santorum was also helped by the flubs, flaws and failures of his fellow candidates. We see Romney’s debate kerfuffle with Perry that leads him to extend his hand and challenge Perry to a $10,000 bet, hardly the kind of thing that working class Iowans are likely appreciate. We watch the rapid evolution of Perry from fiscal conservative to right-wing religious conservative, highlighted by his bizarre “Strong” ad, and his equally rapid and bizarre mental decline that led to his pitiful debate performances. We see Bachmann’s organizational flaws as she often arrives late to events, leading her to replace her campaign manager. And Newt Gingrich’s contentious arrogance towards his opponents is on full display. We also see the lightning-rod appeal of political outsider Herman Cain (and learn that he’s got one hell of a singing voice), his enthusiasm, wit, charm and energy standing in stark contrast to the rest of the field, but only momentarily, as his campaign is quickly derailed by multiple accusations of past sexual indiscretions.
While watching the candidates transform before your very eyes as they try to get their sea legs is fascinating enough, the people who are the motivating force behind the transformations are equally intriguing. If you think too many recent Republican candidates tend to be religious zealots whose views often border on racist, Caucus makes it painfully clear that there’s a market out there for such leaders. And while my takeaway from the documentary was that what made Santorum the eventual winner in Iowa was his sincerity and hard work, I wonder if what he and his fellow Republicans took away from Iowa was something different, assuming that it was his faith-driven governing vision that had appealed to Iowa’s Republican voters. If so, it would help explain the tact that the Republican field took as the presidential campaign unfolded. Of course, Iowa’s Republicans are ever-less representative of the United States as a whole so it might also help explain how the Republican party ended up losing another Presidential election.