Archive for the 'Movie reviews' Category

Review: “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

Watch a preview clip of “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”

I walked into the Tivoli with high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Those of you in St. Louis know Jeff Smith from his campaign for Congress in 2004 against Russ Carnahan and some other people (1). More recently, Jeff won a five-way Democratic primary for state Senate (2).

In “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”, director Frank Popper seeks to portray Smith as the idealistic underdog, and the Birkenstock fits perfectly. Throughout the film, and through the use of both home movies and modern-day footage, we see Smith taking on battles he could never be expected to win: competing for ward endorsements against Carnahan, dialing for dollars against Russ’ mom, and playing basketball against black guys (3).

First, let me alleviate the concerns of my fellow conservatives skeptical of plunking down their after-tax cash to see this film. I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry — the movie is long on nuts-and-bolts campaign strategy and short on liberal poppycock. Replace Jeff’s riff that “every child should have the right to see a doctor” with “stop having babies you can’t support” and the movie’s subject could have been a Republican.

The only bone I have to pick with the movie is that in his zeal to tell the perfect underdog tale, Popper oversells the naivete of Smith’s campaign staff. Early on, we’re given brief snippets of each key staffer’s thoughts along with a graphic depicting their name, age, and supposed lack of experience. In actuality, some of the staffers had extensive experience (Clay Haynes and Sam Simon worked for Dean’s presidential campaign.) But this is a minor quibble, and may very well be due to the fact that until this endeavor, Popper hadn’t been close enough to a campaign to know that staffers’ titles do not always match up with their real responsibilities.

The movie’s timing was fortuitous for Smith; I saw it the Saturday night before the election, and campaign volunteers were at the ready, handing out GOTV lit and answering questions about the candidate.

Let me be the first (4) to predict that this movie will attain cult status among the political crowd. When it’s released on DVD, it will join “The War Room” and “Primary Colors” as the movies that campaign volunteers and staff watch over and over as they prepare mailings and staple yard signs. Like the others, it has a number of “I’ve been there” moments that we can all relate to — hearing voters offer unsolicited, condescending suggestions; riding in a carful of staffers, each of whom is chatting on his own cell phone; and watching the people who should be coming out for you in a primary getting weak-kneed when you need them the most.

There are two bad guys in this movie: “the system” and Russ Carnahan.

We are reminded several times that in 2004, Missourians elected Matt Blunt, Lacy Clay, Jo Ann Emerson, and Russ Carnahan (5). The argument presented is that due to the present-day political system, each of these people was elected because of their last name. It would seem to follow, then, that those individuals are vapid figureheads. I don’t think that argument is entirely fair — I’ve never met anyone who says that Robin Carnahan or Jo Ann Emerson aren’t smart enough to be where they are today. But Popper’s conclusion is a reasonable one considering who won the movie’s featured race.

For Russ Carnahan, this movie is an 88-minute negative ad that will never stop playing. Even worse for Rusty, it’s targeted to what should be his base. A few of my Dem friends tell me that Carnahan has grown into his role in the last two years. While that may be evident to the people who work for him, how many people actually go to town hall meetings or press conferences and will see those improvements firsthand? Russ’ political operation must address the fact that an entire crop of the smartest, most energetic young Democrats view him as the stumbling, bumbling mama’s boy that took away their friend’s rightful spot in Congress.

For those of us who have never felt simpatico with the Carnys, this movie is almost therapeutic: You cannot help but root for Russ to finish a sentence without reading his notes. (And as much as I hate to dump on a WashU guy, it doesn’t seem that there’s much that Professor Mark Smith could teach Rusty in the way of communication skills.)

PEOPLE WHO WILL LIKE THIS MOVIE: Anyone who has ever worked in a campaign or run for office.

PEOPLE WHO WILL NOT LIKE THIS MOVIE: Anyone with the last name Carnahan.

Read the P-D review of “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”

Due to demand, the run of the film has been extended.

(1) One of whom was a fellow WashU professor named Mark Smith.

(2) Yeah, yeah, I got that one wrong (page 5). But I got the other two right, and 67% gets you a diploma at a public school.

(3) His father, we are told, enrolled young Jeff in a black basketball league so he could play against “the very best.”

(4) Or at least the first Missouri Republican blogger.

(5) As a Republican friend pointed out, the movie leaves Robin Carnahan unscathed. Is that because a downballot race like Secretary of State was off the radar for Popper, or because Robin is considered the “smart Carnahan”?

(On a personal note, I was happy to see my man Clay Haynes get the recognition he deserves for his role as campaign manager. The film shows that Clay was cool as a cucumber when others seemed ready to wet their Underoos. Clay is currently Field Director for U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford (D-TN). Any of you donkeys that want to get in touch with Clay can reach him at clayhaynes {at} gmail {dot} com.)

Comments to john {at} johncombestblog {dot} com. E-mail rules here.