Update (May 6, 2013): I’ve been notified by the proper authorities at Hot Docs that, although it wasn’t labeled as such, I saw a work-in-progress version of the film. In fact, the final film’s structure is different and it’s 15 to 20 minutes shorter. So please now read this review with that and the following in mind: “It’s the best campaign trail documentary since The War Room!”
In the thick of the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, I’m just coming off a panel on documentary criticism in which we discussed the need to forward documentary literacy, meaning more considered, critical and nuanced writing and understanding of documentary film.
I can’t promise all that but it only makes sense for me to try to do so with the first documentary I saw after the panel. My unfortunate test case: Caucus, which had its world premiere last night.
When I first heard about Caucus, about the Republican campaign trail in Iowa way, way back in 2012, I wasn’t interested. Isn’t this movie coming too soon? Don’t we need more time before we can look back at the Republican primary in Iowa? How is it at all relevant to today?
But, as I was watching the film, I realized my hesitation was itself a good reason to see it. Caucus is a huge jolt to the senses as it forces us to be in neither smack in the middle of the 24-hour daily news cycle nor in the sobering-it’s-been-a-long-time-now-let’s-look-back frame of mind.
Caucus dares us to care about what happened just a year or so ago. In a way, it feels like that election thing never happened; as if we all knew all along that Obama would defeat Romney to become our president.
But that’s just not the case. The film shows, what feels like, every corn dog, speech and verbal joust that the Republican candidates experience. We catch all the behind the scenes banter in what must be an homage to Primary, the classic first step in Direct Cinema filmmaking, in which doc titans D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Drew, Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles followed the Wisconsin primary back in 1960. That was the launch of the fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, and it must have felt radical back then.
There’ve been other films in the campaign trail genre, like A Perfect Candidate, and War Room, but Caucus has less allegiance to them than Primary because, well, its approach to the subject is basically, let it roll.
What I’m saying is that the movie is nearly two hours long and I think it’s about a half an hour too long. The film is relentless in its coverage of moment after moment. It keeps showing what it’s been showing—candidates engaged in uncomfortable chatter, hustling here and hustling there, intercut with dreamy music. Is director A.J. Schnack trying to simulate the tedium of being on the campaign trail?
No, in addition to playing the Primary card too hard, I think he expects more from his audience. The genius is supposed to be in the details. He wants us to be patient, to not look at our watches, and to feel the pace of what really happened, and to appreciate how human these people are. At a film festival, where everything is happening at once, that was too much to expect of this viewer.
Now, if you have the patience, there’s much to be appreciated and learned from Caucus. You see all the little steps, like Michelle Bachmann showing up 3 and a half minutes late to a function, that inched the electorate from one candidate to another. You see these people as more than puppets.
And, on a very different note, and revealing my personal political inclinations, you hear what these candidates and their followers said, and you realize America didn’t vote for them. These are the ideas and candidates that America rejected, and these deeply passionate people in Iowa and other parts of the country are still dealing with the wounds of their defeat. God knows what would happen if they have to go up against Hillary in the next election.
And that’s the greatest virtue of Caucus: it makes us aware of the reality we live in right now. It’s easy to ignore what lies beneath the surface, but Caucus shows the true present by revealing our recent past.