Film Festival Heavy on Politics
Toronto — The 2006 Toronto International Film Festival has presented more than its share of politically minded films. From fictional dramas like Babel and All the King’s Men to documentaries like The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, this seems to be a zeitgeist moment for films that deal with our current political climate.
One of the most talked-about movies of the festival has been British filmmaker Gabriel Range’s D.O.A.P. The title stands for “Death of a President,” although it can also be taken as a descriptor of the president in question: George W. Bush. A faux documentary about the assassination of Bush by an unknown gunman, Festival Co-director Noah Cowan calls D.O.A.P. “easily the most dangerous and breathtakingly original film I have encountered this year.”
I was unable to catch a screening, but I did talk to several people who did, most of whom had the same reaction: “I can’t believe they got away with (making) it.”
Newmarket Films — the same company that distributed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — has picked up the rights to distribute it in the U.S. Will D.O.A.P. actually makes it to theaters? I’d bet against it.
I did see the world premiere of … So Goes the Nation, James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s documentary about Ohio’s role in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.
The filmmakers arrived in the state five days before the election, which turned out to be a prescient decision, as Ohio became the most important place on the planet on election night.
“I read about 3,600 Republican volunteers going to Ohio to challenge the authenticity of voters’ registration,” Stern says during the post-screening Q&A. “Having remembered Florida so vividly, I thought this could really be something.”
He was right. Straightforward and balanced, … So Goes the Nation is an intriguing look at contemporary political campaigns and the passionate people who take part in them — from the dedicated grassroots people on the ground to the many strategists and consultants on each side. (Of the party bigwigs, Democratic consultant Paul Begala steals the show, offering keen, frequently hilarious insights that are critical of both sides.)
The film effectively conjures the deep emotions leading up to the election, and several scenes come off as eerily ironic two years later. It also confirms what is now obvious: Democrats have no clue how to run effective campaigns.
… So Goes the Nation documents how both sides flooded the battleground state with millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers. One such volunteer was George W. Bush backer and current Cincinnati Coucilwoman Leslie Ghiz. She’s one of three major figures in the film’s narrative (the other two were Democratic volunteers in Cleveland and Columbus). The directors follow Ghiz as she coordinates the Cincinnati campaign team through to Election Day, an approach that puts a human face on what was the most bitterly divided election in a generation.
At one point in the film Ghiz calls Bush a “father figure,” a sentiment that perfectly encapsulates his appeal, despite his having one of the worst first-term presidential records in modern history.
“He makes me feel safe,” Ghiz says.
She tells the filmmakers her interest in politics was inherited from her dad: They watched TV together the day Richard Nixon, having resigned the presidency, flashed his famous victory sign on the White House lawn. How’s that for a bonding moment?
Ghiz attended the premiere, sitting about 10 rows in front of me.
More than anything, … So Goes the Nation illuminates the differences between each party’s campaign philosophies. Republicans see politics as the cutthroat endeavor it is. (“Politics just isn’t fair,” Ghiz says.) They attack their opponents at every turn, something Kerry’s “data research” said would turn off voters.
Wrong answer, John. While Kerry was trumpeting his military service at the feel-good Democratic convention, the right’s well-oiled media machine effectively labeled him an elitist liberal with a penchant for “flip-flopping.”
Then there’s the whole Swift Boat affair, an episode the film covers adeptly. Kerry was slow to address the charges; and when he finally did, the damage was done.
In Bush, the Republicans had a pigheadedly decisive candidate who never strayed from message, traits that play well in a time of uncertainly. Most important, fear (via 9/11, gay marriage and other less overt factors) became the campaign’s overriding factor, a theme that hit home when Osama bin Laden resurfaced just days before the election.
“It’s too good to be true,” Ghiz says of bin Laden’s appearance.
In the inflamed era of Michael Moore and right-wing talk radio, … So Goes the Nation is steadfastly levelheaded, something that was foremost in the filmmakers’ minds.
“What we have to do as documentarians is to listen and not simply go in with a point of view, and I think this is our attempt to do this,” Stern said. “In today’s day and age of the polemic and the day and age of information from so many different, disparate sources, people are able to cherry pick only the information they want to hear, be that on blogs and the Internet or talk radio or reality television. So what it does in my mind, and in Adam’s mind, is that it tends to give people the chance to listen only to themselves and not to each other. With that, we really tried to listen to both sides and to let this be something people can have discourse about.”
One thing the film doesn’t investigate is the various post-election controversies, many of which concern Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, an omission that was brought up several times during the Q&A.
“As to whether or not we think laws were broken and there was fraud, that’s not our view at all,” Del Deo said. “We didn’t see any evidence of that. But we do think that elections can be run better, and we do think that there are some slip-ups and some mistakes, but that happens in every election. What we saw was the much bigger picture of how each party was strategizing, choosing candidates, executing and ultimately getting to the result at the end of the day.”
— Jason Gargano