Title: So Goes the Nation
Director: Adam Del Deo/James D. Stern
In 2000 I went to my first ever presidential campaign stop in Jacksonville, FL (bear with me for a minute, I’m going somewhere with this). I was living in south Georgia at the time and, with the election coming up my southern belle girlfriend and I remained irreconcilably divided over the candidates – her backing Bush enthusiastically and me backing Gore by default. Regardless of any other personal perceptions I had about the Governor of Texas going into that day, I left that rally with a forever changed understanding of America’s political process. Even as someone who had serious doubts about George Bush, I expected at least I would hear some type of practiced and well-polished speech that would challenge my critical thinking skills to judge each point on its own merits. So you can imagine my confusion at what I got instead.
After a few hours of milling around among the outdoor hot dog and beer vendors (24 ounce drafts, baby, no limit), we began jockeying for position around the main stage. W. emerged from behind a blast of red fireworks on a platform high above the stage and descended to the podium as the blasts continued to follow him – all choreographed perfectly to the kicks of Van Hagar’s “Right Now”. I’m not even sure if he actually made a speech that night. I just remember him playing to the crowd with a few good-natured shots at his brother and some other eminent Floridians in attendance, and thinking how much the crowd reminded me more of a parking lot full of lubed up tailgaters after a few hours of quality pre-gaming, with their mesh shorts, flip-flops and calls of “Democrats suck!” anytime there was a lull in the action. Thus is the true exercise of our great democracy.
So it was that I was not very surprised by what I saw in directors Adam Del Deo and James Stern’s So Goes the Nation, a detailed look at the game of public manipulation that politicians on both sides of the proverbial aisle have developed into to a science – though I was nonetheless fascinated by it. Del Deo and Stern splice together actual live footage and after the fact interviews with some of the most powerful players on both sides to give a reenactment with running commentary of how the 2004 presidential election came to a head in the state of Ohio and how one side positioned themselves just right in anticipation of this. I’m not sure if they meant to do this or not, but the form of the film looks and feels very much like an ESPN Sportscentury piece trying to put some old championship game in its historical context – intersplicing actual game footage with commentary by some of the prominent players and coaches involved about what they were thinking, what almost happened, how much they still think about it, etc.. Whether it was purposeful or not, I thought this little association was a perfect touch to accentuate the fact that the whole election process really is nothing more than a game to be won, at any cost, for most of those involved.
I should warn you that if you have any strong political allegiance to either party, and a companion set of party-specific blinders on to help maintain that allegiance, this film may not be a very pleasant experience for you. Perhaps a Charlie Sheen double-feature of Wall Street and Platoon or a Michael Moore DVD box set would be a better choice for you (though be sure you know which choice is designed for your particular party allegiance, lest you accidentally end up giving yourself a massive aneurysm). The directors walk a pretty even-handed line down the middle of both parties here without making any intentional bias too obvious. Still, Republicans come off as extremely calculating and manipulative, not afraid to exploit their own constituents most personal fears and beliefs to maintain power. Democrats, conversely, just come off as bumbling nincompoops who might really not have the type of effective organization and focus to actually get anything done if they ever were elected. Both parties come across as remaining absolutely hostage to their own fear of saying anything that might be misconstrued as a promise for some kind of action, fear of giving the other team anything to use against them, and their blatant disregard you as anything more than a plus or minus tally.
If, as I’m sure is the case for most of you, you have already come to terms with these realities of life, there are also plenty of high points in this one. Especially for those of you who can always get a good laugh out of the genuine absurdity of people. The “celebrity” bus tour called in by the desperate Democrats looks more like a VH1 adaptation of Celebrity Road Rules, with mob magnets like Chad Lowe, Daphne Zuniga, Joe Pantoliano and Willie Garson wielding their popularity and influence in the streets like some soggy breadsticks. My personal favorite moment of this was Brendan Fraser’s impassioned, if not (how can I put this delicately) retarded, speech to a crowd about how “Kerry” is spelled “K-E-R-R-Y”, but can also mean “carry” (which he points out) is also another word that can mean “to pick something up from one place and move it to another.” In closing, he implores the crowd to do all they can to get Kerry elected the next day and, just when you think it can’t get any better, is asked by the filmmakers if he’s going to stick around to help rally more voters and doesn’t miss a beat with, “Uh, no, I got a plane to catch but, uh, … good luck with that.”
There are plenty of other absurd moments in this film that will probably leave you only the choice to either laugh at humanity or cry for it. If you find yourself unable to escape the unforgiving grasp of the two-year campaign cycles that we’re likely to be in every two years from now on, I would suggest watching this movie at least to try to have some fun with it. I can understand if you’d rather not spend your precious free movie-watching time with more presidential campaign watching, but there’s a fun twist on this one, and at least when you’re done you’ll be able to recognize some of the plays that each team is calling in the game.
Visuals: Standard documentary stuff