Monday, July 31, 2006

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

Yes, kids, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is a documentary about Missouri politics - sounds like homework, right? Well, it's actually a very entertaining, fast-moving, and intelligent little film, and it's a shame it's currently in limited distribution. Directed by first-time documentarian Frank Popper, the film won the audience award at the Silverdocs Festival. Popper embedded himself in the campaign of Jeff Smith, an unknown who challenged Russ Carnahan in the 2004 Democratic primary for the US House of Representatives seat vacated by everybody's favorite eyebrowless failed presidential candidate, Dick Gephardt.

Still with me? Good. Smith has numerous disadvantages: he's short, wears rumpled clothes, lisps, looks like he's in his early 20s (and is only 29), has no political experience, is running against another candidate named Smith, and most importantly, has no money. Even his parents think he's crazy to run against a Carnahan. Those of you not from MO might still recognize the name Carnahan - Mel Carnahan (Russ' dad) is the former governor who won a senate race against John Ashcroft even though he had died in a tragic plane crash several weeks earlier. His wife Jean took over the job. Many of us still chortle when we think about Ashcroft getting beaten by a dead guy, don't we? That story even made the news in Australia, where I was living at the time.

The film shows Smith's many strengths - he's a tireless worker, empathetic to the plight of residents in decaying urban St. Louis, and he takes grassroots campaigning to a new level. He and his inexperienced staff and student volunteers take to the streets and bring the campaign door to door. Many of their interactions with south side residents are hysterical. The volunteers cover the neighborhoods with yard signs. Smith's cell phone is perpetually glued to his ear, and he calls all the registered Democrats he can find personally. They even flag down cars on street corners. Smith builds some momentum, and his campaign is bolstered by a visit from screamin' Howard Dean. His story makes you believe that the little guy can still be competitive in a campaign if he works hard enough and is passionate about it. At the same time, it points out how badly we need campaign finance reform.

I would say the only weakness in the film is that it doesn't really contrast Smith to Carnahan based on their views on the issues. It settles for taking a lot of shots at Carnahan for being rich enough to make cheesy TV ads and for being part of a MO political dynasty. But that's just a small point, and I highly recommend the movie. It was a lot of fun for me as a former St. Louisan to see a documentary filmed in my hometown. The only other documentary I've seen about St. Louis is the one at the Arch - Monument to a Dream - another movie about dreamers, those two dudes who explored the Louisiana Purchase. Jeff Smith comes off as just as intrepid. Good luck to him in his current campaign for MO Senate - go see this movie and rock the vote on Aug. 8, Missourians!

Boston, LA, and DC - the film is coming your way - check the schedule here. St Louisans, you just have this week to get to the Tivoli!

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