With this very nation as polarized politically as it may very well have ever been throughout its history, politics and the world of documentary film have become one with each other in ways we have not seen previously. As more and more documentarians step out to make true blue political statements with their work, more and more films become ostensibly broadly sweeping, one sided (be that side conservative leaning or liberal, the latter of which I will fully admit to standing alongside), diatribes instead of true issue pictures that are now a rare and welcome breed.
I say rare, because while many modern day documentarians allow themselves to editorialize and philosophize throughout their work, there are still a handful of filmmakers, and films, that simply use the camera as a window, portraying people and issues for what they truly are. I say rare because a new film has arrived in theaters that proves, despite taking on a handful of subjects that may be some of the most polarizing and controversial people we’ve had come into the zeitgeist in a while, is as uninterested in adding a layer of outside philosophizing as any documentary this year.
Entitled Caucus, director AJ Schnack takes to the 2012 Iowa presidential caucus, which saw a gaggle of Republican presidential hopefuls fill the state all trying to take control of the state’s base, which itself is the first real contest of the presidential race. Featuring a bevy of interesting people ranging from evangelical Senators to former pizza chain owners, the film spans 10 months of the political season, with names coming in, dropping out, rising and falling.
And while many people may not agree with the politics that these people expound upon in real life or throughout this documentary, Schnack (the founder of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking) has as deft a hand in painting these cartoonish figures as what they actually truly are; flesh and blood people. But that doesn’t quite dig deep enough into what this film’s greatest attribute is.
Visually, the film is rather standard. With some animated interludes, the film rarely gets above a standard documentary aesthetically, ultimately making the odd comparisons to a film like The War Room all the less valid. Much like the breathtaking At Berkeley, the film feels muted aesthetically, but only because the filmmaker behind the camera has intentions more intellectually minded than aesthetically.
With names like Rick Sandorum and Michelle Bachmann leading this picture, it’s viscerally and physically impossible not to bring with you pre-conceived notions of who or what these people are or believe. However, Schnack’s film, at its very best, nearly wipes the slate clean for each of the men and women here, instead letting them speak for themselves. Take a name like Herman Cain for example. Nothing more than a glorified Fox News talking head, Cain comes off as oddly charming, and like a man simply out of his depth. Ostensibly a collection of character studies in the guise of a documentary feature, Caucus is at its best when these men and women are given space to not only speak for themselves, but speak to a political climate that has become as polarized as it has ever been.
Not always set in simply giving the candidates the floor, a handful of moments build throughout this film, that find the general public forcing these candidates’ hands. Speaking directly to the polarization of today’s political landscape, a landscape that has gone from just simple dislike to seething hatred for the opposite side, the film hints at the influence of the evangelical right on the Republican party, the far right’s strive for things like boarder control, and various other living and breathing political truths.
And then there is Schnack’s obvious interest in Iowa as an entity, a political institution, in many ways. Iowa has become the first and most important stop for Presidential candidates, and often times a launching pad for those with the likeliest chance of getting their respective nominations. While it’s a far cry from the brazen energy of a film like The War Room (here the verite aesthetic feels less vital, less influential on the film’s center), Schnack’s film is a really entrancing look at the political machine, and those men and women that it chews up and spits out. A fine, oddly entertaining and anti-editorialized watch for members of both polarized political parties, Caucus is a superb documentary that takes out the partisan politics (even if that’s hard to stomach for this bleeding heart liberal), and turns its camera on the US political machine itself.