Who says selling arms to Iran and funding Nicaraguan terrorists should prevent you from being a senator?
Dir. R.J. Cutler & David Van Taylor, 1996, 106 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
That’s the thought that ran through my head, again and again, watching A Perfect Candidate. The Virigina senatorial race of 1996 might as well have taken place today. The nasty attack ads. The vapid idiocy of the media. Liberals apparently trying to take over the country through godlessness and socialism. A wretched old woman talking about how the Civil War was about “states’ rights” and how minorities make everything about racism. The political climate seems identical to ours. It’s a dispiriting thought, to say the least.
The name of the doc is ironic, of course. It references a line from a preacher that comes late in the film, as he urges his flock to be reasonable in choosing whom they vote for, since there’s no such thing as a perfect candidate. Which is true. But it seems that most candidates are way, way further away from perfect than what perhaps should be considered acceptable for any elected position.
You would think, for instance, that a man who facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, and then used the proceeds from said sale to fund terrorist organizations in Nicaragua, both actions specifically prohibited by Congress, and then subsequently lied about said actions to Congress, and shredded documents to obscure the extent of the conspiracy, and escaped conviction only through legalistic pap, (*deep breath*) might perhaps be judged unsuitable to be a senator. And yet Oliver North ran an incredibly successful campaign in ’96. In fact, he raised more money than any other candidate that year, much of it coming just from direct mailings of supporters. He still lost, but the fact that it got so close is a testament to the power of the political spin machine.
Filmmakers R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor had extraordinary access behind the scenes at both North and his opponent Chuck Robb’s campaigns. We see how both sides strategize and re-strategize, rolling with every new punch that comes their way. Neither North nor Robb come off particularly well here, but Robb still has the moral advantage on virtue of not, you know, being a criminal. In the eyes of the Republican base, though, that apparently isn’t as bad as possibly having an affair or going to coke parties, which is the worst that can be said for Robb.
But neither candidate really has the moral high ground here when it comes to their tactics. The sad fact of American politics is that it doesn’t really matter how good or bad you are, whether at your job or anything else. What matters is how bad you can make the other guy look. The accusations fly fast and thick, each one more absurd than the last, and the media is all too eager to report it, and the public is all too eager to eat it up. The doc makes a pretty strong case that people are too stupid to deserve democracy (That’s not an actual message from the film, mind you. That’s just me being my pessimistic self).
Cutler and Van Taylor are in the completely objective mode of view here. They stand back as silent observers, letting the various political players hang themselves with their own words and deeds. They cull both their own footage and news bites to create a perfectly coherent narrative out of the election race. This week, there’s a comedy coming out called The Campaign, but I doubt even Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis could make politics funnier than as it’s seen here. The cold candidness with which strategists plot out how next to cynically manipulate voters is horrifying in the way that can only make you laugh, because the only other option is to move out of the country in disgust.
A Perfect Candidate is a somber look at the state of American politics. We love winning and winners so much that we don’t care what a politician does to win, so long as they can pull it off. It didn’t matter that Oliver North was not just unrepentant of his misdeeds but still in denial that he had ever done anything wrong at all; the people admired his “consistency,” or whatever. And given the reasons you’ll hear the average person give for their support of whatever candidate nowadays, that’s pretty much a constant. We don’t deserve these nice things.