Wednesday, October 11, 2006

As Ohio Goes . . . It Could Have Been Worse

If you’re a tad suspicious of a documentary on the 2004 Ohio Presidential campaign produced by the Independent Film Channel, that’s understandable. . . . So Goes the Nation, currently screening at the IFC Film Center in Manhattan was clearly undertaken with the following controversial assumptions: the liberation of Iraq was an immoral mistake, Bush’s tax cuts were bad, and Republicans in general are downright unlovable. However, once directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo started rolling the cameras, they captured two very different campaigns: a well planned and well executed Republican effort, and a chaotic Democratic campaign, undercut by the fragmentation of the various extremist 527 groups.

Despite any preconceived notions of the filmmakers, the Republicans definitely come across as the smart ones in So Goes. Where various 527 volunteers are seen wondering around, confused and aimless, the Bush volunteers seem to know exactly what they are doing and why. Everyone credits the Republican strategists for running a smart campaign. Nobody has much good to say about their Democrat counterparts.

It is not like the filmmakers did not try to stack the deck. We follow the Ohio campaign through the eyes of three volunteers. A middle aged public defender volunteering for the Kerry campaign and a grungy organizer for the 527 Vote Mob are depicted as idealists. The one volunteer chosen from the Bush Cheney campaign is painted as an overly type A personality. Yet somehow she seems to connect with real people, while the Kerry volunteers do not.

There are some interesting moments of candor in the film, as when the Vote Mobber expresses unease with level of vitriol expressed in the Bush hatred of some of his allies. He rightly goes so far as to suggest it is insulting to some of the targeted undecided voters to suggest they are considering voting for evil incarnate, and therefore counter-productive.

Certainly the chosen clips and stills of President Bush are often unflattering, but the real loser in So Goes is John Kerry’s future presidential ambitions. When Republican operatives talk about him as a pompous liberal twit, the filmmakers seem to essentially agree. We are treated to images of Kerry the snowboarder, Kerry the windsurfer, Kerry the hockey player (that was one ad I missed). Truly devastating is the “I voted for the 87 billion before I voted against it” sequence, which does not exactly prove Kerry to be a quick thinker on his feet. So Goes hints at one of the fundamental differences of 2004. Left-wing Kerry supporters hated President Bush. Conservative Bush supporters mocked John Kerry. The latter is much healthier than the former.

Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to record a tale of Republican skullduggery. Unfortunately, they did not find any Diebold executives skulking around with a briefcase labeled “emergency Bush votes.” The only real fraud they documented was the bogus voter registrations of groups like Acorn (currently in legal trouble again in Philadelphia and Missouri for fraudulent registrations). However, they tried to laugh it away through an editing trick, whereby multiple Republican supporters were seen decrying the registrations of fictitious names like “Marry Poppins” using the same basic talking points. Of course, that does not change the fact that those abuses happened.

The filmmakers had access to very high ranking officials of both campaigns, and they actually have some interesting, even newsworthy, things to say. They really did capture the feeling of the election too. I was in New Hampshire, and watching So Goes brought it all rushing back. However, the best part of So Goes is the happy ending.