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Skinner
Posted by Skinner in General Discussion (01/01/06 through 01/22/2007)
Tue Jun 20th 2006, 02:11 PM
I was invited to a screening last Friday of the documentary film "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" which was showing at the AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. The invitation came courtesy of fellow DUer GumboYaYa, who was instrumental helping get the film made, and even had a few cameo appearances in it.

The movie was not at all what I expected, which is a good thing. When I first heard the title I took it a little too literally, and feared they might actually use Jimmy Stewart to represent some kind of perfect candidate. In my head, I imagined an annoying 90-minute laundry list of all the Powerful Entrenched InterestsTM who are making it impossible for poor Jimmy Stewart to come to Washington anymore. It's been years since I saw "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but if my memory serves it was almost as awful as "It's a Wonderful Life." (I know, It's blasphemous for me to even suggest such a thing.) Fortunately for me -- and for this movie -- there was only one reference to Jimmy Stewart in the entire thing. With this in mind, I can hereby declare "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" safe for general viewing.

In fact, it's not just safe for viewing; It's actually really good.

"Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" tells the story of Jeff Smith, a 29-year-old progressive idealist with no political experience who decides to run in the 2004 Democratic primary for the Missouri congressional seat vacated by Dick Gephardt. Among the large field of Democratic contenders, Smith is such an unknown that he shows up as an asterisk in early polls. What's worse, among those opponents is one Russ Carnahan, son of (you guessed it) former Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and former Senator Jean Carnahan, who is seen by almost everyone in the Missouri and Washington Political/Media Establishment as a virtual shoo-in. Russ appears to be (in this movie, at least) an uninspiring and unimpressive candidate whose high name recognition and front-runner status seem to be based entirely on his family name (not unlike a certain current occupant of the White House). In stark contrast, Jeff Smith comes off as intelligent, idealistic, hard-working, and likable (as is befitting the hero of our movie), despite the fact that he is short, speaks with a lisp, and has zero political experience.

While Carnahan seems to skate by on his name and family connections (and presumably on the easy money that they make possible), former-asterisk-guy Jeff Smith succeeds in making the race competitive by just plain out-hustling the other guy. He puts on a virtual clinic on grassroots campaigning: Door knocking, face-to-face contact, lawn signs, coffees. Any candidate running for local office would do well to watch this film.

This is a classic campaign documentary, which reminded me of other campaign documentaries like "The War Room" or "A Perfect Candidate," albeit on a much smaller scale. While those other documentaries give you an insider view of a high-level, national campaign run by seasoned professionals, "Mr. Smith" gives you a very different insider view of what it's like on a small-time dark-horse local campaign that's got more heart than cash. Watching this movie made me nostalgic for the old days when I used to make a living on political campaigns, putting in 18 hour days for candidates I actually cared about, fueled by youthful idealism and day-old pizza. The inexperienced, naive kids running Jeff Smith's campaign reminded me of so many of the people with whom I spent my early-to-mid-twenties.

It was extremely frustrating to watch as almost all the jaded establishment types in our party and in the media threw their support behind the safe choice, rather than take a chance on the talented newcomer. That this ended up being a close race, despite their non-support, is a testament to how hard Jeff Smith and the folks on his campaign worked. That, and the fact that they simply refused to believe it when people told them that they had no chance. While this film shows how unfair politics can be, I actually came away feeling pretty hopeful. Even though the challenges facing candidates like Jeff Smith are formidable, they are not impossible to overcome. "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" shows that idealistic, independent, grassroots candidates can be competitive if they run smart, aggressive campaigns that play to their own strengths.


Currently, this film does not yet have a deal for nationwide distribution. They have lined up a few viewings at small indie theaters and film festivals, so you may have a chance to see it in your hometown if you keep your eyes open. At the Silverdocs festival, they won the Audience Award, which means it got the highest score based on audience voting. If you would like to learn more about Jeff Smith, I encourage you to visit his 2006 campaign website. (Spoiler warning: If you visit Jeff's website, you'll probably be able to figure out how the movie ends.) http://www.jeffsmith2006.com
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David Allen
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Member since 2001
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I am the owner and co-founder of Democratic Underground.
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