I originally wrote a short review of Frank Popper’s exciting new documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (official site), a few days ago immediately after seeing it at Silverdocs, but the review has been generating so much traffic–thank you, Arch City Chronicle–that I thought I’d expand my original review into something longer. Mr. Smith also won the Audience Award at Silverdocs, and after thinking about it the last few days, I think the film can offer a significant contribution to our ongoing conversations about politics and civic participation.
Mr. Smith focuses on Jeff Smith’s campaign in the 2004 Democratic primary for the House of Representatives seat being vacated by the retiring Dick Gephardt. When Smith, a 29-year old adjunct professor at a local university with no political experience and few (if any) political connections, decides to run, even his parents discourage him, in part to shield him from the disappointment of losing. Running in a crowded field of eight candidates, including Russ Carnahan, the son of Mel and Jean Carnahan (a former governor and Senator respectively), Jeff would seem to have little chance of winning. Others dismissed Smith’s chances because he looked too young or didn’t look the part of a political candidate, but Smith, whose progressive politics and youthful enthusiasm are utterly infectious, leaps into this improbable campaign, and Frank Popper’s film takes us on the journey of Smith’s campaign, capturing the energy of a political campaign that seems to be capturing lightning in a bottle.
When thinking about this film, it’s the energy of Smith and his campaign staffers that I’ll remember most. Riding the revitalized grassroots energy born out of the Howard Dean campaign, Jeff and his staff emphasize connecting personally with the voters of his district, going door-to-door to actually talk with the voters, and throughout the film we see Jeff with a cell phone on each ear, somehow managing to hold two conversations at once as he works to solicit campaign contributions or even a few more votes. In addition to going door-to-door, Smith’s capaign emphasized yard signs (giving his name further visibility) and informal coffees hosted by suporters to give him a chance to talk about his politics in a more conversational situation. Jeff’s strategies clearly work as polls show him going from being “an asterick,” getting around 2-3% of the vote, to being a major contender for the nomination.
Of course, these strategies wouldn’t work if Smith didn’t have the support of a tireless campaign staff of volunteers subsisting for weeks on cold pizza and little sleep, and while Mr. Smith bears a strong resemblance to the behind-the-scenes campaign film, The War Room, it also offers a glimpse of a much more accessible campaign on a much smaller level, unlike the highly polished Clinton campaign led Carville and other Beltway professionals. These strategies also wouldn’t work if Jeff didn’t know how to connect with the voters, but Jeff proves to be an eloquent and thoughtful candidate, shining in the debates between the Democratic candidates, but also connecting on a personal level with individual voters, particularly in the African-American community which constitutes a major part of the district. And this is where Mr. Smith raises some important questions about our political process. Several voters seem to acknowledge to Jeff that they prefer his positions on the issues but worry that he won’t be able to beat the more powerful candidates. The major newspapers, including the most prominent African-American newspaper in the community, choose to line up behind Carnahan, laregly because they have an eye only on fielding what they believe will be the most likely candidate to win. As Skinner’s Democratic Underground review points out, “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.”
Possible spolier: As many readers will know, Carnahan won the primary by the narrowest of margins (Jeff Smith has now set his sights on getting elected to the Missouri state senate), and yet, as Skinner notes, it’s hard not to walk away from Mr. Smith without feeling at least a little hopeful. While candidates like Smith face major obstacles, his campaign clearly electrified members of his district, and even though he received few endorsements from local newspapers, his grassroots techniques captured the imagination of many members of the local media. At the same time, the film depicts many of the problems with a system that strongly favors powerful insider candidates. As I mentioned in my original review, I don’t think Mr. Smith offers any easy answers to the question implied in its title, and I think that’s what makes Popper’s film such a vital, important document for conversations about our political process.