I’m not sure what surprised me more – that I was deeply drawn in by a film about Republicans, or that once I got drawn in, that I most identified with Senator Rick Santorum. Yes, really.
CAUCUS begins days before the 2012 Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa. A motley crew has gathered to drum up political support in the hopes that he or she can be the Republican nominee for president. The field represents a broad snapshot of the American right: Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty (for a moment or two). They will all spend the next months attacking President Barack Obama – and each other. None of them seem to have the same plan of attack, and the eventual result is one that few could see coming.
Director AJ Schnack has done something special with CAUCUS. He has created a film that features humour and absurdity, but has done so in a way that never feels mocking or condescending. He points his camera at a group of politicians that dominated headlines and newscasts for months, and allows us to get to know them better than any of those stories ever did. Their positions remain unwavering, of course, but their personalities are allowed to come through so much more.
To their base, they are rock stars. To audiences of the evening news, they are cartoons. To anyone who watches CAUCUS, they are flawed, genuine people who want to make a difference.
Few seem to epitomize this more than the candidate CAUCUS sticks closest to, Senator Rick Santorum. This is a candidate that many on the political left especially dislike, and someone who has had some controversial views through the years. However, his strategy to visit ninety-nine counties in Iowa on the campaign trail made him an ideal subject for CAUCUS to follow. As we travel with him, something strange happens – we end up liking Rick Santorum an awful lot. He stands as a stark contrast to the candidates chartering planes and busses to zigzag the nation, and is more interested in speaking with voters than he is grandstanding for a CNN live feed. One still might not believe in his political stance, but they cannot help but fall for his tenacity and approachability.
This warm depiction helps CAUCUS balance out the silliness of the Republican race (and believe me – there’s silliness). Sometimes the silliness comes from watching a candidate earnestly discuss his love for zoos with a member of the press. Sometimes the silliness comes from the candidates laughing about the demographics with would-be voters. Sometimes, the silliness comes courtesy of the spouse of one candidate standing behind the candidate during a speech – and doing everything except listening to their spouse’s speech.
None of these moments come off as a way to tear down these politicians – quite the opposite actually. CAUCUS is out to do whatever it can to humanize these talking heads. It wants the audience to look past the public perception, and just watch them interact. By keeping the lens pointed at them after the debates end, and the TV spots are wrapped allows CAUCUS to teach us a lot about who these men and women are, perhaps in ways they aren’t comfortable with us seeing. It’s like seeing Lady GaGa take the stage in her street clothes – the talent is still there, but the image feels radically different.
That feels like the ultimate mission CAUCUS is trying to achieve. To get past the gaffes and the stumping, and give us a glimpse at why the people who want to lead America want to lead America. Ultimately, CAUCUS is a call for America to listen more closely, and its leaders to speak more clearly.
CAUCUS has finished its Hot Docs engagement. For more info, including future screenings, check out the film’s website.