Kristian Fraga and Juan Dominguez’s Anytown, USA (IMDB) is a compelling campaign documentary following the 2003 race for mayor in the small town of Bogota, New Jersey, a small New York City suburb in Bergen County. The race takes place against the backdrop of unpopular budget cuts that threaten the local high school football team, with many locals resolving to see the current mayor booted from office. The race features the unpopular, fiscally conservative Republican, Steve Lonegan, a reluctant Democratic candidate, Fred Pesce, and a last-minute write-in candidate, David Musikant, a former captain of the football team who, like the mayor, is legally blind. The quirky characters and the depiction of smalltown life have compelled many critics to compare Anytown, USA to Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries (perhaps most notably Waiting for Guffman), but I found myself keying on the film’s relevance to the upcoming midterm elections and the ongoing debates about how elections are conducted, with the film reminding me of Frank Popper’s must-see doc, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, and, to a much lesser extent, the insider doc, The War Room.
The film opens just a few weeks before the 2003 election during a city council meeting in which Bogota residents criticize Mayor Lonegan’s budget cuts, with Lonegan responding in typically pompous fashion, showing the degree to which the community is politically polarized. Entering the fray is Frank Pesce, a longtime local politician who reluctantly enters the race at the request of the local Democratic Party. While Lonegan runs a tight, organized campaign, Pesce’s campaign is inept and lazy by comparison. Compared with Lonegan’s colorful fliers and mock newspaper featuring thinly-veiled campaign propaganda (“The Bogotian”), Pesce’s campaign material appears cheap and lazy. Sensing an opportunity to make a difference in the race, Musikant enters the race as an independent, hoping to ride the wave of anti-Lonegan sentiment into office.
Initially, Musikant’s campaign struggles to get off the ground. At first, Musikant is running his entire campaign by himself, making calls from the basement of his sister’s home (where he lives) and struggling to read messages off of a giant computer monitor. When he contacts Doug Friedline, the campaign manager who helped Jesse Ventura get elected governor of Minnesota, he reluctantly admits that he doesn’t have a webmaster and hasn’t printed campaign t-shirts (among campaign basics). Friedline, excited to take on the challenge of helping elect an independent candidate, offers to help Musikant, and his campaign begins to take off, and gradually, Musikant becomes a more viable candidate with a more professional polish. In a creative and humorous touch, Musikant even employs a “pencil” mascot to remind voters that he is a write-in candidate.
While it would have been easy to play this smalltown mayor’s race for cheap laughs, however, Fraga and Dominguez instead demonstrate remarkable generosity towards their subjects. As a result, they gain remarkable access to the political candidates. Lonegan, who has become a major player in statewide New Jersey politics, is refreshingly blunt about his campaign tactics and his condescending attitude towards his political opponents, while Musikant comes across as a gentle, almost naive, figure, a local football hero who can still charm many of the locals. While Pesce is less developed, he is often surprisingly honest about his motivations (or lack of motivation) during the election.
Ultimately, the filmmakers use Bogota as a microcosm of current electoral politics, allowing the small, politically-divided New Jersey suburb to stand in for the nation as a whole. But while it’s tempting to see Musikant’s third-party candidacy as an allegory for Ralph Nader’s ill-advised 2000 election run, I think the more interesting reading is one that focuses on the actual work involved in political campaigns (and I think that Matt Zoller Seitz is correct o point out that Anytown, thankfully, is not merely a facile condemnation of a broken systemâ€). The film uses as an epigraph Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim that “all politics is local.” And I think the film conveys that very effectively. Musikant begins gaining ground when he goes door-to-door, shaking hands with the voters and talking with them about the issues. At the same time, we see the dark side of many campaigns (candidates spread rumors about the health of their political rivals; candidates’ yard signs are ferquently torn down; and Lonegan uses his newspaper to report the “facts,” at least as his party interprets them). In short, Anytown, USA offers an important, refreshing, and sometimes humorous glimpse into local political campaigns and their implications for the communities where they take place.