It's tough for your average American citizen to be naturally drawn towards politics, and there's a good reason for that: it's a confusing system. Upholding the time-honored rule of "it's not what you know, it's who you know", winning an election is often based more on a big campaign budget than a candidate's actual ability. Of course, most people figure this out early: in your typical high school class election, it wasn't about the issues...it was about who gave away more cupcakes.
Kevin Vigilante (above)---a Rhode Island candidate gunning for a seat on the House of Representatives---figured this out the hard way, as seen in director Joshua Seftel's Taking On The Kennedys (1994). A relative unknown in politics at the time, Vigilante was up against a formidable opponent in Patrick Kennedy (below), "heir to one of America's most powerful political families." Through a combination of campaign footage, news broadcasts and a bit of background on the two candidates, Taking On The Kennedys paints a darkly comedic, unsettling portrait of American politics. It's not the most even-handed documentary ever made, but it's an entertaining piece that shows us the rules of the game.
Hint: they're not always fair.
Truly, this was an election highly influenced by face value. When Vigilante campaigns at a Rhode Island Senior Center, an elderly woman admits her support towards his opponent because "the Kennedy name is good enough". When she found out that Kennedy supported a health care plan that she didn't agree with, her surprise may have led her to reconsider. Sadly, many others weren't as receptive to Vigilante's wake-up call: additional footage features an elderly man laughing at the thought of a wealthy Kennedy burying the blue-collar candidate in money. P. Diddy, your words have never echoed more truly: it is, in fact, all about the Benjamins.
Budgets aside, another important factor in this election proved to be the media strategy. Political campaign commercials---you know, the ones where the other guy is shown in an unflattering pose, while "our hero" kisses babies---were just as cliched as ever in the Kennedy camp, as he wasted no time in questioning Vigilante's history and lack of political experience. Interestingly enough, despite Vigilante's initial pledge to avoid mud-slinging, he ends up doing it anyway once his numbers start to fade. It's a shame he couldn't have kept his cool, but here's the kicker: the mud-slinging works to his advantage. The gap narrows on the home stretch, but the election results don't yield any underdog miracles. Sad, but true.
As a provocative political documentary, Taking On The Kennedys shines. It's an interesting story that gets the viewer involved, never overstaying its welcome at just under an hour. If you're having trouble figuring out what really oils the American political machine---and trust me, you're not alone---this film isn't a bad starting point. There's been some great documentaries on this broad subject released on DVD recently, and I'm happy to report that Taking On The Kennedys keeps the ball rolling nicely. There's only one real drawback to the film, though: for many of us, this film won't really tell us anything we know from a basic standpoint. For those already aware of the darker side of politics, the revolution of "name value" to gain political advantage won't be very surprising. At its roots, though, this film is a successful effort in most every regard, rightfully deserving of a much wider audience.
Docurama's got a great track record so far, and this release maintains their status. Although the film's low-budget origins keep the technical presentation from rising high above an average rating, the inclusion of several key bonus features helps make this one well worth the price of admission. When you've got a solid film backed by a excellent disc, it's an easy recommendation for any fan of politics...or just great documentaries. 2005 will hopefully bring more great efforts to the table, but Taking On The Kennedys is keeping the pace so far. Let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Though it's easily the low point of this release, Taking On The Kennedys is hardly unwatchable from a visual standpoint. The source material couldn't have been in terrific shape, and the assortment of 1994 news clips and commercials is also far from pristine. Still, the 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer looks as good as possible under the circumstances: colors are slightly dull yet accurate, and there's little in the way of dirt and digital imperfections (though there's a bit of edge enhancement during some footage). It's hardly a standout in the genre, but it gets the job done and won't disappoint on the whole.
The audio quality is roughly the same as your typical documentary: it has a few high and low points, but there's no major problems here. Presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo, this dialogue-driven film was easy to understand...which is a tough feat, considering this was recorded on the fly with a shoestring budget. As always, the straightforward nature of this documentary doesn't merit a more complex audio presentation, so it shouldn't be compared to typical motion pictures on DVD. Unfortunately, no subtitles have been provided...a problem that should never be overlooked.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Presented in the typical Docurama style, the menu design (seen above) isn't anything special but is easy to navigate. The 54-minute film has been neatly divided into half a dozen chapters, and no layer change was detected during playback. Like the film itself, all related bonus materials are presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio. The disc is housed in a standard black keepcase, and a complete Docurama catalog list has been included for your buying convenience.
The film's a fine effort in its own right, but the inclusion of some nice bonus features really cemented my approval. An Audio Commentary with director Joshua Seftel (recorded in September 2004) starts things off, proving to be a great listen despite the seven year gap since the film's production. His low-key, conversational approach suits the tone of the film well, making for an interesting commentary that's obviously more reflective than technically detailed. Although it's a shame that Vigilante himself couldn't have been present for the commentary, it's a good effort that's worth a listen. Also here is an Election Night Outtake (1:20); specifically, a short congratulatory phone call made by Vigilante after the election results. There's also a terrific collection of nine Original Campaign Commercials representing each candidate, one of which is seen below. Next up is a brief Making-Of Featurette (3:00), basically consisting of general footage (mostly unused) that's bookended by an interview with the filmmaker's parents.
Another interesting bonus feature is The Real Russell (13:10), a short film produced during the 1996 Presidential Campaign about candidate Bob Dole's hometown of Russell, Kansas. Commissioned (and later abandoned) by CBS News and directed by Seftel and author Michael Lewis, this unfinished product---presented in very rough shape due to its abandonment---also contains optional audio commentary by Seftel. It's an unrelated extra to be sure, but a fascinating piece that's worth watching. There's also a short POV Interview (1:00) with Seftel that ends a bit abruptly, as well as a TV Spot (:30) and a text Biography of the director. Wrapping up the bonus features are a Docurama advertisement and a collection of Previews for their excellent back catalogue. Not the meatiest collection of bonus features in recent memory, but all are appropriate and support the film well.
It may have lost a bit of urgency since its original release, but Taking On The Kennedys is still an entertaining, thought-provoking documentary that tackles an interesting subject. While it won't tell you anything new about the prickly underbelly of American politics in general, it never hurts to remind viewers that the playing fields are rarely level. Docurama continues to impress with another solid effort, backing the film with a thoughtful collection of bonus features that fans will really enjoy. With the recent revival of the documentary genre on DVD, now's a great time to check out one of the better releases of 2005 thus far. Highly Recommended.
Related Link: 2004's Top 10 Documentaries on DVD
Randy Miller III is an art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.