Jeff Smith was a normal guy who decided to run for Congress. How did he do?
Dir. Frank Popper, 2007, 82 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
Politics have been on my mind in recent days, for some reason. So what better film to cover than a political one? There’s a lot of despairing among people these days about the cynicism that infects our government and our perception of it. The very title of Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? speaks to this feeling. Our system is supposedly built so that anyone who wants to make a difference can be enable to do so, but in practice that isn’t really the case. It’s far more often that those who already have power pick who gets to represent us in the government. Can an ordinary man make any kind of difference? That’s what this film sets out to explore.
In 2004, 29-year-old Missouri teacher Jeff Smith decided to run for Congress. After his district Representative retired, Smith tossed his hat into the ring of the Democratic primary, despite having no prior political experience. Among his challengers to this position was Russ Carnahan, whose family was a powerful political force in the state. With no backers, no funds, and no idea what he was doing, Smith put together a grassroots campaign to promote himself. The results were remarkable. He slowly gained support throughout the district, until he became a legitimate challenger to Carnahan’s seemingly unstoppable machine.
The doc is equal parts refreshing and dispiriting. It’s refreshing to see that, yes, it is in fact possible for an average person to become a social mover if they have the right drive and ingenuity. On the other hand, seeing Smith and his team of amateurs having to repeatedly slam themselves against the significantly greater strength of the entrenched machine is wearying. It’s possible to act out the American ideal, but the system itself discourages it. So really, our government is not built for the believer.
Smith himself is a likable enough fellow. I don’t like that he’s run charter schools or that he considers himself “fiscally conservative,” but pobody’s nerfect. He’s endearing, both a nerd and a cool guy at the same time, a former basketball player with a voice that’s even more nasally than Ira Glass’s. The man is running out of an honest desire to improve things. All this was happening at the height of the Bush era, when progressivism wasn’t cool, and Smith is unabashedly agitational against the Iraq War (remember that?) and for freedom of choice. And watching him go from no-hoper to full-on candidate is quite inspiring.
The movie feels extremely guerilla, shot mostly on handheld cameras, with spotty sound throughout. It actually adds to the atmosphere. Smith’s campaign is low-budget and rough and tumble, so why shouldn’t the movie about him be the same way?
Ultimately, Smith lost the primary by only 2,000 votes, which was still pretty impressive, considering the vast disparity between his resources and those of his opponents. There was a happy ending, though, as Smith went on to successfully run for state senator. Politics are not quick to adapt, but when they do, it can be wonderful.
…And then this happened. Ouch.