Judge Maurice Cobbs enjoyed this political documentary a great deal, but he was still disappointed that there was no steel cage match.
One man's race against a political dynasty.
"The Kennedy/Vigilante race struck me as the meeting of two concepts that Americans love. On the one hand, you had an underdog in Vigilante, kind of a Rocky Balboa figure. And on the other, you had the closest thing to royalty that America has."—Joshua Seftel
Facts of the Case
1994: Patrick Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy, nephew of John F. and Bobby Kennedy, decides to run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives, representing the fifth most Democratic district in the country. His opponent: Dr. Kevin Vigilante, a Republican running his first political campaign.
Dr. Vigilante is an intelligent, soft-spoken, idealistic, easygoing, regular old nice guy—nicer than most, in fact. He worked his way through medical school, at one point working in a steel mill. He donates much of his time to treating battered and HIV-positive women. He went to Romania, at his own expense, to work with handicapped children in an orphanage there. He established an organization dedicated to giving private school educations to the children of incarcerated women. And this does not begin to give a complete picture of Dr. Vigilante's humanitarian works.
An honest and straightforward man, Dr. Vigilante is not intimidated by the Kennedy name. He believes that there is no need to run sleazy, negative ads. He believes that he can stay positive, run on the issues, and get his message across to the people. He believes that the voting public will consider his views on the issues, contrast them with the views of his opponent, and vote accordingly. He believes that, on the strength of facts and ideas and straight talk, he can defeat Patrick Kennedy.
As narrator Tom Kemp observes, he is about to get "the political education of a lifetime."
I had to double check the keep case for this DVD just to make sure that I hadn't misunderstood the premise. Even then, I had a hard time believing that it wasn't scripted from beginning to end. The film has that air of dark comedy that you might find in a mockumentary like The Office or a political satire like Bulworth. But it is 100% true.
Joshua Seftel met Dr. Kevin Vigilante in Romania while making his first documentary, Lost and Found: The Story of Romania's Forgotten Children. The two became friends, and when Dr. Vigilante decided to run for Congress, Seftel called and volunteered to help with the campaign—until he discovered that his friend was a (gasp!) Republican. Seftel, who describes himself as a "liberal Democrat," felt that he could not help a Republican run for office, despite his respect for Dr. Vigilante—but thought that the race might make an interesting film. Does it ever.
Dr. Vigilante seems to be running on a pretty standard Republican platform—tax cuts, a tough stance on crime, less government, you know the drill. When Dr. Vigilante enters the race, he is bright, personable, friendly, and relaxed. This is reflected in his early ads: a series of energetic character studies that put forth his qualities and positions on the issues almost resume style, yet in a fun and endearing manner. As far as he's concerned, there's no need to run a mudslinging campaign. And so he is genuinely shocked when Kennedy starts right out of the gate with a dirty television attack ad that distorts the truth and makes him appear to be a puppet for big-money interests. Dr. Vigilante does well in a debate against the much younger Kennedy, presenting himself as collected and serious, especially when contrasted with Kennedy's blank stares, awkward, flippant answers, and failed attempts at humor—which leave even experienced reporters in stunned silence. But no one sees it; there's a football game on the same night. Though Dr. Vigilante must struggle to get local reporters to attend his press conferences, young Patrick need only bring a relative or two to town and even the national media swamps his campaign. Kennedy continues his onslaught of lies, distortions, and mudslinging, and an increasingly frustrated Dr. Vigilante tries desperately to retain his lofty ideals. Predictably, he makes no headway. One Democratic voter won't even listen to his platform—the Kennedy brand name is good enough for her (even though Kennedy supports legislation she is opposed to). Another Democratic voter cackles with glee at the thought of the Kennedys burying the financially struggling Dr. Vigilante under a gigantic pile of money.
Dr. Vigilante does have at least one celebrity supporter: Mary Ann Sorrentino, a liberal Democrat radio talk show host who here chooses to use her caustic wit to skewer Patrick Kennedy, cracking wise about his life of privilege and taunting him with songs dedicated to him ("If I Only Had a Brain" is one, "Call Me Irresponsible" another). And Dr. Vigilante is an unstoppable campaigner, taking every public opportunity to meet the voters ("six parades, 20 festivals, dozens of supermarkets, 50 senior centers, and one nail-pounding contest," according to the filmmaker) and get his message across. But Kennedy can bring Tony Bennett to town to sing, get John Jr. to pose for photos, and sign autographs (although some of his supporters do complain that when Patrick signs autographs, the "Kennedy" part is hardly readable. Nice to know that people have their priorities straight). As the campaign progresses, the once-eager and idealistic Vigilante becomes stressed and sour, and tensions in his camp run high.
I was reminded of a line from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep: "I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." A political campaign, obviously, is no place for integrity and ideals. The film's saddest moment, perhaps, is the inevitable one: the moment when Dr. Vigilante gives in to pressure from within his campaign to fight back with his own mudslinging campaign. When Kennedy runs an ad implying that Dr. Vigilante faked an injury so that he could con a little old lady out of her money, the good doctor loses his cool and strikes back in kind, holding a press conference that brings up the sordid details of young Kennedy's background, such as his time spent in drug rehab and his involvement in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial.
And it works.
Suddenly Dr. Vigilante, who had been trailing badly in the polls, finds himself back in the game by bashing his opponent. The onslaught of slime continues when Dr. Vigilante's campaign finds a former landlady of Kennedy's: Apparently, he'd rented office space from her and stiffed the 85-year-old woman on the $3,400 bill, claiming that he didn't have the money to pay her. It's gold, and Dr. Vigilante—obviously embarrassed and ashamed—nevertheless comes within real distance of the goal by adopting Kennedy's tactics. On the night before the election, the two candidates are neck and neck. Dr. Vigilante remarks, bewildered, "It's crazy. You waste all this time raising all this money to put things on the air that don't really mean anything. It's just unbelievable. They're just 30-second images." How had things come to this, when he'd been so determined to not go this route at the start?
Shot entirely by Seftel himself using a Sony handycam, the video quality isn't that great, and much of the material pulled from TV footage has aged badly, but it is far from unwatchable. The sound is surprisingly good, and little is lost despite the low-budget nature of the project. Taking on the Kennedys doesn't look too slick, and yet it manages to outclass other documentaries in a year lousy with political documentaries. Seftel is only an observer, and the only commentary given during the film is expository; as a true documentarian should, he keeps his opinions to himself and simply records the events as they unfold.
Lots of special features are included in this better-than-average release, perhaps due to the relatively short running time of the main feature. A conversational and low-key commentary by Seftel offers insight not only into the events as they unfold but also Seftel's personal thoughts and observations of both Dr. Vigilante and the Kennedys in general. A brief deleted scene shows that gut-wrenching moment of defeat on election night, that final call: "It got pretty rough there, didn't it?" Dr. Vigilante is clearly disappointed, but he also looks as if the weight of the world has been taken from his shoulders. The "making of" segment is actually an interview with Seftel's parents, Pat and Lee Seftel, about the making of the movie. It's brief and, frankly, rather pointless, as is the short interview with Seftel—which seems to be little more than a promotional spot for the film. By far the most interesting of the DVD's special features is The Real Russell, a hysterical short film that features writer Mike Lewis and Seftel on a journey to Bob Dole's hometown of Russell, Kansas, trying to find out if the senator's stories about Russell are based in fact or spun from fiction.
The truth is, Dr. Kevin Vigilante was in a game that was above his head. The film has nothing to do with ideology, or government, or even the issues. It's about the power of a name, and the privileges of wealth. Dr. Vigilante wasn't just running against a young man, he was running against a myth, a mystique. He was running against vast wealth, big business, and borrowed celebrity. And he was running against a man who was willing to do whatever it took to win, no matter how underhanded or sleazy. Patrick Kennedy is not an evil man (at least, he never left any girls to drown in a car like his dad did—as far as we know); he is polite and genial, though he is shallow and, according to several of the people in the film, not too bright. But no one watching these events unfold, not even the most ardent Democratic supporter, can possibly believe that he could have been elected to public office anywhere had he not had the good fortune to be born with that famous name and the money to back it up. Taking on the Kennedys is at once entertaining, involving, funny, and disturbing.
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