By the time you read this, I will no doubt have already finished reading Double Down***, the hot new book of political gossip about the 2012 presidential election from the authors of Game Change. So for me, filmmaker AJ Schnack’s documentary of the race for the GOP presidential nomination, focused on the Iowa race from the straw poll to the caucus, played as a sublimely rewarding political junkie’s fix.
Eschewing narration and talking heads for the more demanding approach of cinema vérité, Caucus manages to act as a blistering exposé that encourages an American’s darkest streaks of cynicism while also crafting a fully engaging, Rocky-like hero’s journey for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Let’s get full disclosure out of the way: I wouldn’t want Rick Santorum to be president. Nor would I have voted for Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, nor Ron Paul; I did not pull the lever for Mitt Romney. Nobody in this field shares the bulk of my political values. Clear enough? All that said, I will affirm that, at least in this film, Santorum emerged for me as a very sympathetic figure in the midst of what most now regard as the primary clown car show that rambled across the country and stirred the kind of rhetorical poison that helped guarantee the reelection of a vulnerable incumbent president.
No one comes off well in this film—not the politicians, not the press, not the public. The well-worn rap on candidates being “phonies” is bolstered here if you simply observe them in action, engaged with “listening” to potential voters with a thousand-yard stare concealed just well enough to mask they’re merely waiting until it’s time for them to start talking again (This is a lot like the narcissism people associate with ego-driven actors); when a reporter asks Santorum if his complaints about not receiving the kind of press attention afforded his rival Republican “stars” indicates that he’s paranoid, the use of the insulting label, meant to act as a trap, rightly triggers a shocked double-take of offense from the candidate.
And then there are the voters.
We’ve all seen those “man on the street” videos of Americans demonstrating their questionable set of intellectual values by knowing the names of the Kardashians but not the name of the vice president. This film gives us a taste of that sort of mindset writ large and often fueled by xenophobic bile about Barack Obama.
We see some amusing (and later, notable) moments from the campaign trail: The “corporations are people, my friend” footage is here; Michele Bachmann’s uncertain but wide-eyed gaze is much in evidence, as are the much-lampooned dance stylings of her husband; Ron Paul lambastes opponents who “can’t understand” the economy, yet he appears unable to figure out how to close the door of his van; in a moment of supreme irony, Newt Gingrich is heckled and thunders his refusal to be “drowned out by the one percent”; the aw-shucks charm of Rick Perry is captured melting away when he rises from a discussion with an elderly war veteran; the haunted darkness that moves across his eyes is startling, and one is desperate to know what he’s thinking in that unguarded moment.
At one point, Bachmann tries to lure voters to her caucus tent with promises of great food, Randy Travis, and “even a petting zoo.”
But then, about mid-way through the film, director Schnack quiets the loony chaos to focus on Santorum sharing two very personal aspects of his biography—the death of his infant son, Gabriel, and the birth of their daughter, Isabella. Santorum relates both stories in public forums. How the Santorums treated the 1996 death of their son—who survived only hours after being born 20 weeks into wife Karen’s pregnancy—became highly controversial and criticized by many when they brought the child’s lifeless body home so that their other children could recognize that, for a very short time, they had a brother. Santorum is also intensely candid about their eighth child, revealing that doctors counseled him and his wife to terminate her 2008 pregnancy (Mrs. Santorum was 48 that year) due to worrying signs the child would not survive. Diagnosed with Edwards syndrome after she was born, Isabella was briefly hospitalized in 2012 as her father competed for the Republican nomination. That, too, became news.
Opponents may quickly note that the freedom afforded the Santorums to make these important decisions about their family is exactly what the former senator wants to take away from other Americans by force of law, and that is fair enough. No person of conscience, however, should feel morally correct in assaulting his character, or his wife’s, based on those specific, very difficult, and very private decisions.
Every one of Mitt Romney’s competitors had their turn in the spotlight serving as the GOP’s “conservative” alternative nominee, and Caucus gives you a finely distilled sense of why and how each of them managed to briefly capture the imagination of the redder-than-red-state voters who hold temporary (though some say, increasing) sway during primary season. Like what’s frequently said about the sausage-making of legislation, it ain’t pretty. And to paraphrase that other saying, it’s the worst system in the world…except for everything else.
Conservatives have ample evidence to say that the film casts an unfavorable light on their ideological heroes; unfortunately, most of that evidence is brought about less by a filmmaker’s power to manipulate than by the behavior of the candidates and their supporters. What fascinates most about Caucus is that the film also does a good job of reminding the left-but-open-minded that some politicians whose views they mightily oppose and labor to keep far from the levers of power might, somewhere down deep, yet be decent people.
***Indeed: I devoured all 512 pages of Double Down in three days. While it is perhaps not quite the equal of the gonzo-bonkers narrative of Game Change, it nevertheless teems with juicy behind-the-scenes campaign wonkery that will satisfy the most hardcore politics aficionado. It also again reinforced the skill and power of the movie Caucus, because once reminded of many of the positions taken by the candidates depicted in the film, it whiplashed me right back into a more partisan frame of mind.