Judge Joel Pearce thinks all elections should include a "neither of these miscreants" option.
In the voting booth, no one can hear you scream.
This is my second review of a film about American politics. In my review of Journeys with George, I complained about the severe lack of political content in that documentary. Fortunately, A Perfect Candidate does a far better job of dealing with the issues and maneuvering that are part of a political campaign. It's also a key demonstration that while it is a great thing to have the right to choose in a democracy, that does not necessarily mean that we always have good choices.
Facts of the Case
A Perfect Candidate follows the 1994 Virginia senatorial race between Oliver North and Chuck Robb. It was North who gave the crew that made this film close access to his campaign, but they also dig into Robb's campaign as well. For others not closely acquainted with the contemporary history of American politics (like me), Oliver North was the Lieutenant Colonel who deceived Congress when he exchanged money and arms for hostages in the mid '80s. He was convicted for that, but managed to gain enough popular support after to have a chance at becoming Virginia's senator. Chuck Robb was also no stranger to controversy, having been accused of numerous improprieties, among them participation in cocaine parties. This documentary explores what happened during their campaigns.
The people of Virginia seemed to gravitate towards Ollie North for some reason. In the film, it is explained as a result of his charm, although that charm certainly didn't work on me during this film. I think it might be an ultra-conservative American religious right thing, from which I am very separated politically. It could also be because many Americans have extremely short memories. Directors R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor do an excellent job of setting up the sordid histories of North and Robb, enough that you never quite forget what their supporters are willing to forgive and forget.
The directors of A Perfect Candidate certainly weren't afraid to get their hands dirty, and they dove right into the political issues that were central in this campaign. They question the connection between conservatism and the religious right, and the implications of that connection on state and national politics. They also explore the connection between the North supporters and the racism that still seems to be a concern in the southern United States. The Confederate flag becomes a major issue in the campaign, and I was shocked to see how quickly many of his supporters shrugged off the complaints that African Americans have about this racist symbol. The way that both candidates refuse to commit to any firm statements about these issues is both disturbing and frightening. Comments they make directly contradict things that they have said in other speeches earlier in the film. Certainly some of this is likely attributable to clever editing, but there is more than editorial manipulation going on here. This is political campaigning at its worst; a race between two men who definitely don't deserve to hold positions of power.
Perhaps most fascinating, though, are the sections that focus on the "spin doctors" working behind the scenes on North's campaign. Headed by Mark Goodin, this crew opens up remarkably well for the camera, revealing both their hardened cynicism and their hopes for victory. They are completely aware that the political races have become more about winning and less about people working towards solving problems, as politics was meant to be. It has become a form of daily entertainment, according to Goodin, to which he and the nation have become addicted. This helps to explain the tendency for candidates to sling mud at each other; of which there was no shortage in this particular campaign. Robb's campaign is particularly vicious in this regard, but the North team is almost as guilty.
It is mentioned several times in the course of the film that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. I believe that's true, although I also know that there must be some out there that are better than either of these men. A Perfect Candidate captures that truth in an impressive way.
The only extra with any real weight is the commentary track with both directors. These two men obviously get along well, as they chat away about how the film came to be and how the various players reacted to the film crew on set. It's a track that fans of the film will probably want to check out, since it is pleasant to listen to and informative. The other two "extras" are much less valuable. The picture gallery houses a whopping four pictures, which doesn't even count as a token effort. The section entitled "Ollie and Chuck React" is also ridiculous; it only includes one brief text caption from each candidate. I'm not sure why they bothered with either of these "extras."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the documentary is entertaining and intelligent, the disc itself leaves much to be desired. The video transfer is slightly letterboxed and non-anamorphic, and looks about as ugly as any DVD I have ever seen. This seems to be the fault of both the source material (which is incredibly cheap and several years old) and the transfer, which seems to be an example of digital de-mastering. The colors are weak, the black level is non-existent, there are all manners of digital flaws and ghosting, and there's not a whole lot of detail. I'm sure that technical quality was far from the primary concern of the producers, but the results are still disappointing. The audio transfer is a pretty typical mono transfer, but the dialogue is always clear, which is the most important thing in a documentary of this nature. There are no subtitles on the disc.
A Perfect Candidate probably should be required viewing for anyone who is planning to vote in the United States. That's a bold claim, but I think the film does a remarkable job of cutting through the spectacle to get at the ways in which candidates and their teams twist public opinion in order to win. The DVD isn't very impressive, but I doubt a better version will to be available anytime soon.
Both candidates are found guilty, but this documentary isn't.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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