Hailed by the Washington Post as “the best American documentary since Hoop Dreams and one of a small handful of essential films about politics in this country,” A Perfect Candidate explores our national obsession with winning, and the impact of that obsession on the nation’s well-being. Casting Oliver North as an unlikely underdog in American politics, acclaimed filmmakers R.J. Cutler (The War Room) and David Van Taylor (Dream Deceivers, With God On Our Side) weave a timely parable about contemporary leadership and campaign culture in a cynical age, where issues take a back seat to the machinations of political spin doctors and voter interests are distorted in a media hall of mirrors. A Perfect Candidate will air nationally Tuesday, August 5 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV moves into its next decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
Sometimes horrifying, often hilarious, A Perfect Candidate is an up-to-the-minute critique of our campaign process — and a twisted journey into the underbelly of American politics. In 1994, former Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North re-emerged following the Iran/Contra scandal to challenge Democratic incumbent Charles Robb in a hotly contested Virginia senatorial race. A Perfect Candidate presents revealing close-up portraits of both candidates, and offers a rare glimpse into the lives of two important people behind the scenes: North campaign senior strategist Mark Goodin and veteran Washington Post reporter Don Baker.
Cutler and Van Taylor spent 11 months following the race on both sides. They gained unprecedented access to the candidates, their handlers, the press and voters, which enabled them to explore the unexpected and very human dimensions behind many of the campaign’s major players. “We weren’t there to make Ollie look good or bad. We weren’t there to make Chuck look good or bad,” explains Cutler. “We wanted to see what was going on and we wanted as clearly as possible to tell the story of what we saw. One of the big reasons why the people in this film gave us the access that they did was because of a need that they had, a desire to have this film made,” he added.
North and Robb proved to be complex characters and oddly matched adversaries. The son-in-law of Lyndon B. Johnson, Robb began his political career with great fanfare, steadily moving up the ranks to Governor, then Senator of Virginia. But in 1994, damaged by a series of scandals, Robb found himself fighting off renegade Republican North, himself no stranger to controversy. A former National Security Council aide under President Reagan, North was convicted in 1989 on charges related to the Iran/ Contra scandal, but this conviction was later overturned. Even as the film begins, the novice candidate can be seen projecting qualities increasingly hard to find in American politics: clarity of purpose and passionate, uncompromising conviction. “He’s Elvis!” crows Goodin. “He is Elvis!”
As the candidates and their campaign staffs shuttle between prayer meetings, picnics and rallies, the battlefield widens to include television news reports, campaign ads, public debates, and outspoken commentary from independent-minded voters on both sides. Who will the voters believe? “It’s a choice between a devil and a demon,” one man in the film says wearily. “Who you going to vote for…the flu or the mumps?”
Through all the hype, Goodin and Baker act as clear-eyed, brutally candid guides. Baker expresses his disillusionment with his former political heroes, including Robb: “Over the years I’ve admired different politicians, but then they’ve always done something to lose my admiration. So if the question is, who is the last politician who I still admire –” (he pauses a long while) “– boy, I don’t know.” And Goodin confesses, “Getting people elected, unfortunately, has a lot to do with dividing… You know, you try to chip off your piece and then break the rest of it into so many smithereens that they don’t matter. But that is different than what it takes to govern. Because what it takes to govern is all about finding consensus on difficult issues and bringing people together.”
A Perfect Candidate is ultimately about national leadership — whether real leaders can exist in a climate where scandal, hypocrisy and moral cowardice seem to be the norm. “The title of the film comes from a sermon by an African-American preacher,” explains Van Taylor. “He was encouraging his congregation to take a more mature attitude toward our leaders, and not to go searching for perfect candidates. This film is a vivid reminder of what politics is really like.” Cutler adds, “The wonderful thing about America is that we get to choose our leaders — but the dreadful thing is that we have to choose our leaders.”