In 1994, political neophyte Kevin Vigilante, a Republican physician, challenged Democratic favorite son Patrick Kennedy for a seat in the U.S. House representing the fifth most Democratic district in the nation, the 1st District of Rhode Island, and nearly won. With a record long on public service but short on political experience, Vigilante found himself front and center in a contentious battle of distorted television imagery and sound-byte rhetoric. Viewers will get an inside view at what it’s like to run for office when Taking on the Kennedys launches the ninth season of POV, broadcast television’s only continuing forum for independent non-fiction film.
Joshua Seftel shooting Taking on the Kennedys during the campaign.
Played out against the backdrop of Rhode Island politics, Taking on the Kennedys explores the dynamics of campaign tactics and tells the story, according to 27-year-old filmmaker Joshua Seftel, of a man who thought he could change politics, but in the end, politics changed him. “At first, Kevin Vigilante was somebody who really wanted to fight the clean fight. He didn’t want to go negative. He wanted a clean, fair race. But in the end, he finally decided to go negative.” In 1992, while making his first documentary, Lost and Found: The Story of Romania’s Forgotten Children, Seftel met Vigilante, then a board member of the Free Romania Foundation. Vigilante, an idealistic doctor in his forties, established an inner-city clinic where he cared for HIV-positive women. Two years later, when Seftel discovered Vigilante was running in the upcoming Congressional race against Senator Ted Kennedy’s youngest son, 27-year-old Patrick, he decided to make a film about it. “The Kennedy/Vigilante race struck me as the meeting of two concepts that Americans love,” says Seftel. “On the one hand, you had an underdog in Vigilante, kind of a Rocky Balboa figure. And on the other, you had the closest thing to royalty that America has.”
The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call called the Kennedy/Vigilante race “a first rate thriller…in which themes of class, culture, political dynasty, and the decline of electoral partisanship are vividly on display.” A newcomer to what he calls the “brutal circus” of modern political warfare, Seftel fought for unrestricted access every step of the way. “I was always struggling to establish a trust with both campaigns, but it was very difficult because there was so much at stake. Each campaign became a universe unto itself.”
Shot entirely by Seftel in Hi-8 video with a Sony handycam, Taking on the Kennedys follows the candidates behind the scenes as they plot strategies, court the pivotal senior citizens’ vote, attend fundraisers, and vie for media attention. When the Kennedy campaign airs a television ad attacking Vigilante, he holds a press conference to rebut the charges, but only one reporter shows up. Despite his strong showing in a televised debate, a wave of ads trashing Vigilante decimates the doctor’s standing in the polls. Finally, the frustrated Vigilante retaliates with his own Kennedy-bashing ad and his poll ratings shoot up, leaving him neck and neck with Kennedy as election day nears.
Ultimately, Kennedy prevails and Vigilante is defeated. The candidates have spent a total 2 million, the majority of it on attacking each other on television and in print. “It’s crazy,” Vigilante remorsefully says to his girlfriend, Sonia, before making his concession speech. “You waste all this time raising all this money to put things on the air that don’t really mean anything. It’s just unbelievable. They’re just 30-second images.”