Monday, July 23, 2012

AAIFF ’12: Mr.Cao Goes to Washington

Anh “Joseph” Cao was elected to Congress in 2008, a generally bad year for Republicans.  He was defeated in his re-election bid two years later—a decidedly good year for Republican candidates.  In a mere two years, the idealistic former Jesuit seminarian received an eye-opening education in all manner of group-think politics.  Cao’s short tenure in office is documented in S. Leo Chiang’s Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Immigrating to America while his father was still a captive of a Communist Vietnamese re-education camp, young Cao led an eventful life before he even considered a political career.  Choosing law school over a life of the cloth, Cao became an activist leader in Versailles, New Orleans’ small but enterprising Vietnamese community (profiled in Chiang’s previous documentary, A Village Called Versailles).  Louisiana’s second congressional district was deliberately drawn to elect an African American Democrat, everything that Cao is not.  However, the ethical issues dogging William “Cold Cash” Jefferson gave Cao a once in a lifetime opportunity to flip the seat—and he was precisely the transcendent candidate to do it.

The question throughout MCGTW is whether or not Cao can hold his seat against a relatively untarnished Democrat (if one can be found in the Crescent City).  Unfortunately, most viewers already know the answer, undercutting the suspense, but also preparing them for the inevitable crushing disappointment.

Chiang and film editor Matthew Martin arduously walk a political tight-rope, trying to frame Cao to be as appetizing as possible to left-of-center film critics.  Much is made of Cao’s relative liberalism within the Republican caucus, including many laments that he might be better suited to the other party.  Yet, Cao remains staunchly pro-life throughout his term of office, so so much for that idea.  Frankly, Cao had no complaints with his Republican colleagues, getting more than his share of their earmarks for his ungrateful district.  Conversely, the figure who emerges in Chiang’s doc as the poster boy for political hypocrisy and opportunism is none other than the current (but perhaps not long term) occupant of the Oval Office.

Initially wooed by Obama, Cao genuinely believed the President’s pretenses of friendship.  Indeed, Cao took a lot of heat voting for the House’s first Obamacare bill.  However, when Obama inevitably cuts a commercial for his Democrat opponent (a less than inspiring figure with a history of disbarments and barroom brawling), it is profoundly disillusioning for Cao.  Indeed, for all the film’s attempts to distinguish Cao from the national GOP, time and again it is the Democrats (both nationally and in New Orleans) who refuse to look past party labels and racial identity.  To their credit, Chiang and his team show this quite clearly.

Nonetheless, MCGTW is so intent on presenting Cao in non-partisan terms, it declines to correct a few inaccuracies.  While Cao was the only Asian American Republican in Congress at the time of his election, he was eventually joined by Charles Djou, the first Thai American congressman, who won a special election in Hawaii (but was subsequently defeated in 2010, like Cao).  Perhaps more problematically, MCGTW lets a local provocateur’s incendiary racial attacks on the GOP stand unchallenged.  Still, it illustrates the sort of rhetoric Cao faced from some extremists.

Perhaps most importantly, MCGTW always treats Cao fairly, recognizing his earnestness and integrity.  He is clearly the real Horatio Alger deal, with the attractive wife and cute kids perfectly suited for campaign brochures.  Watching his re-election campaign unfold will be a frustrating experience for viewers of most political stripes.  If anything, it suggests the greatest problem with the current political system is not money or PACs, but the voters themselves.

That is a real downer of a Pogo-like message, isn’t it?  Still, Cao’s frank, vigorous spirit is quite refreshing.  After viewing MCGTW, one hopes for a sequel with a more satisfying ending.   Clearly, Cao is talented man and Chiang has a keen understanding of the community he represents.  Considering the mildness of its biases, the mostly fair and responsible Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is recommended for political junkies on both sides of the aisle, particularly those who following events in New Orleans from a distance, when it screens this Thursday (7/26) at the Chelsea Clearview as an official selection of the 2012 AAIFF.