13 candidates. One amazing race. Who's left?
It's 1999. California is experiencing one of the largest economic booms in its history. The dot-coms are creating millionaires literally overnight and these nuevo rich wunderkinds, along with their businesses and corporations, all want to reside in San Francisco. For recently elected Mayor Willie Brown, this couldn't be better news. His town is prosperous, progressive, and popular. He's a shoe-in for re-election. But lying under the surface of the financially sound upper crust is an angry, disappearing middle class who can no longer afford to rent in the city, let alone buy any property. Brown's supposed catering to the haves while forgetting the have-nots has made this large constituency angry. They are looking for anyone other than their current regime to vote for, but as the election loom, it seems like "da Mayor" will reluctantly win another term under the "lesser of all evils" ideal. However all of a sudden, at the last minute, a crusading homosexual school board official named Tom Ammiano decides to run, and a powerful "write-in" candidacy begins. Soon, Ammiano is catching up to Brown and an actual battle for City Hall seems imminent. Filmmaker Emily Morse is present as the race heats up, camera fixed on the combatants as she gives the rest of America a chance to See How They Run in the city by the Bay.
In theory, See How They Run should be one heck of a documentary. The political potpourri that is San Francisco city government just seems ripe for an insider view of constituency pandering and "extreme" special interest lobbying. As set up in the film, a varied and suspiciously subversive group of candidates seems to be gunning for flamboyant California administrative mainstay Willie Brown. Brown, who has served his state from the Capitol on down was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1996, and the 1999 race appears to be a mandate on money issues: out of control rents, corporate welfare, and the ever diminishing middle class. But in practice, See How They Run is pedestrian and dull, never gaining the necessary inward momentum to move you beyond what is, in essence, a well-made newsmagazine story segment. Part of the problem is that we never really fear that Brown will be defeated. In our machine based electoral process, where votes are demographically micromanaged down to the simplest and lowest possible denominator, Brown's long-standing success as a candidate and elected official is never in doubt. The drama then must be generated by other entities outside his campaign or the last minute high hat into ring toss of dark horse, openly gay contender Tom Ammiano. Unfortunately, aside from a historic foundation as one of the first homosexual teachers in the Bay area school system, he seems more like a grass roots fluke than a viable contender.
Indeed, Ammiano's proletariat, "us" against city hall idealism has a very false, rather opportunistic ring to it. After all, he waits until almost the very last minute of the election to run, avoiding months of bashing and media scrutiny to simply say "I'm the alternative, write me in." The fact that he is successful says more about the anger towards Brown and less about Ammiano's qualifications or charisma. And in San Francisco itself, Ammiano's orientation is not an issue. Neither is Brown's race (for those who are not aware, he is African American). And frankly, without the inherent antagonism race and hate baiting causes, their friendly, frank competition is all strategy and no mudslinging, not the kind of contest that makes for compelling viewing. Sadly, the other potentially powerful component of this story—the original 12 contestants running in the race—are more or less randomly forgotten. Former Mayor Frank Jordan is quickly dismissed as an "idiot," and former campaign manager turned opponent Clint Reilly has decades-old domestic abuse charges hurled against him, instantly labeling him "wife beater" (even if it was a girlfriend) for the rest of the election. They are never given a chance to speak, to clarify their image or further bury themselves in political double speak, and they, along with the other merry miscreants hoping to ride a wave of weirdness into "da mayor's" office, are almost never mentioned (only one man, a rather odd duck, opens the film). A far more arresting movie could have been made spotlighting the unusual, the crazy, and the absolute outsiders playing politics in and around the glorious Golden Gates. But that is not the movie that See How They Run wants to be. Director Morse sticks with Brown vs. Ammiano and, sadly, pays the cinematic price for it.
Docurama does a good job presenting See How They Run on DVD. They load up the disc with deleted scenes, extended interview footage, cast and crew filmographies, and trailers. Most of the added material helps to flesh out the story of the election (and provides us with rare insights into the personalities of some of Brown's staunchest allies), but really does feel unessential to the film actually presented. This ancillary footage was therefore rightly excised. On the sound and vision side, See How They Run is presented in a crisp, clean full screen video to film image that has a real intimacy and immediacy to it. Director Morse and her cinematographer tend to overuse the extreme close-up to insinuate the "face in the crowd" ideal of following the election with a camera, but for the most part, they do a fine job of keeping the compositions active but unobtrusive. Sonically, some of the dialogue gets lost in the "caught on the sly" crowd scenes and non-staged moments, but when presented one on one, or in less hectic arenas, the words of everyone involved are loud and clear. It's just too bad that all of this is in service to what is basically a minor news blip over-inflated with non-existent importance. See How They Run would have been better taking on a much more inclusive, much more insubordinate scope. Willie Brown versus Tom Ammiano may have been great local theater, but from what is offered here, it makes for a fairly tame documentary film.
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