A Perfect Candidate is a case of documentary filmmakers getting perfect coverage of a process you would think would be guarded from all outside eyes - the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of the campaign managers for a political candidate. After this film it's not likely to happen again, as R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor's cameras make mincemeat of both sides of the Oliver North/Chuck Robb contest in Virginia in 1994.
Or should we say, Oliver North's top handlers Don Baker and Mark Goodin demolish themselves, allowing the all-seeing eye of the docu camera to observe them being petty, mean-spirited opportunists behaving just as sleazy (sleazily?) as the public imagines.
Oliver North was a far right-wing candidate running on an "integrity" platform after his self-incriminating performance in the Iran-Contra investigation. With the modern tactic of arrogantly displaying pride in his crimes (only people who act guilty are guilty), he uses his boy scout image standing before a hostile congress as a tool to claim that "Washington Insiders" and ill-defined evildoers have taken over the country, and his Godfearing little people need to take it back.
The level of cynicism is not to be believed, as the crass handlers treat North as a snake oil that needs to be properly packaged for the idiot voters. Goodin and Baker are crude gentlemen and not all that bright; newer and bluer GOP meanies have their acts down much better. While responsible Republican politicians seek to distance themselves from North, these mis-handlers dish out the double-talk for North to parrot to picked reporters. We see them sitting around tables eating (always eating) as they invent strategies - any strategy - to neutralize their incumbent opponent.
If Chuck Robb were a liberal saint this might be a tragedy. But since North's opponent is a man with flaws of his own A Perfect Candidate soon reveals itself as a comedy, with two clowns in the spotlight and all the laughs at the expense of the public. Robb reels from a sex scandal and tries to deflect the attacks against his character and integrity. This results in a constant string of reporters' questions about his past, which he does a terrible job side-stepping, changin the subject to his own pallid vision for America. Robb is a terrible equivocator when put on the spot; he comes off as a miserable weasel when reporters try to get him to make a statement about one of those issues that no candidate ever wants to face.
Oliver North, on the other hand, impresses us as a devious liar incapable of having a remotely honest response to anything. He's much better when nimbly dodging direct questions about Iran-Contra, implying that anyone who thinks he was dishonest or that he usurped policymaking authority is anti-American. He butters up potentially positive reporters with pap about the greatness of the people of Virginia. One interview in his campaign motor home has him blathering on to a captive newswoman while one of his managers wolfs down a big messy hamburger practically in her line of sight.
North's main handler is shown bitterly whining that he wants to get back at all his false friends who deserted him on his last job. He apparently outed some political foe as a homosexual by taunting him to "come out of the liberal closet," neatly cross-tarring liberals and gays as shameful conspiracy against liberty. He strikes us as a petulant bad sport willing to do whatever it takes to win.
The views of the campaign at large aren't flattering to Americans, not at all. The rallies for North are either with well-heeled Republicans or locals who equate Jesus with guns and Ronald Reagan. One housewife proudly asks her young son (holding a rifle) what his gun is for, and he answers "To shoot ducks and Democrats." What a great nation. North's only really positive exposure is on G. Gordon Liddy's radio show, where his victory is presented as a fait accompli and the Marine anthem is used for his introduction.
The most interesting footage of all shows each side preparing and airing attack ads. North's ads call Robb a fornicator and liar, and Robb's call North a liar and a criminal. When North's record flares up regarding the symbolic, inflammatory issue of the Confederate flag, we hear his handlers proposing fighting back with a spot about how Oliver's daughter thinks he's just peachy and a great dad.
It's mind-opening in several ways at once. The difference between the candidates is a microcosm of the country as it is now. A foolish President can't keep his pants zipped and shames only himself, while another President drags the entire nation into war, creates new enemies across the globe and spends the country's whole GNP for the next generation. Which one is the hero? Which one needs to be impeached and run out of town on a rail?
Following along with all of this is a Washington Post reporter, whose presence will convince viewers that this is a left-wing movie and not a fair account of the campaign. This is made clear when a North supporter tries to glib-chat the Post writer with a bunch of pro-Oliver talk. Discovering who he's talking to, the man recoils from the Post scribe as if he were Dracula. The reporter acknowledges his own disenchantment with politicians of all stripes and verbally admires North's basic campaign skills.
Some of the best footage shows North's campaign handlers carefully talking to the Post reporter: "How's it going? Nice day?" During a debate North's lead man confers briefly with the lady campaign handler for Chuck Robb. They have an obvious sympathy for each other - who else but another harried and ethics-challenged flack could be so understanding? The well-heeled North man is shocked to be told that Chuck Robb is so cheap, he makes his key campaign personnel pay for their own lodgings and food when on the road! As our North boys are constantly stuffing themselves on camera, we understand his horror at the revelation.
In the end, the campaign seems a horse race, right up to election day when North suddenly loses by a 3 to 1 ratio. The handlers try to act reasonable but only come out with bitter remarks like, "I've learned my lesson. Next time I won't let up (on the negative campaigning)."
It's obvious that the chances of good men being elected in system like this is the exception to the rule. The marginalized third candidate fighting North and Robb is seen leaving his polling place like a whipped dog, a meaningless nobody. He racked up a few points on the board, obviously from citizens disgusted with both of the other options.
First Run Features brings us another great political docu with A Perfect Candidate. It comes with a commentary by the filmmakers; they themselves aren't all that sure what stroke of fortune resulted in such cooperation from North's campaign people. There are some filmographies and a few newspaper clippings showing the candidate's reactions to the film. North reels at the stupidity of letting the media into his inner circle, again placing blame on others for his mistakes and offenses. Robb was defeated the next time around, and is portrayed in clippings as a bad loser hanging around Washington and trying to pretend he's still involved.
The transfer of the 16mm film is rough but good, and the sound is unusually clear - obviously handheld equipment has improved since the early 70s. The cover uses the film's right-on tagline "In the voting booth, on one can hear you scream." My experience with Republican associates and the more conservative members extended family is that they're not all that crazy about their politicians, and are just as appalled by the lack of good candidates as we Democrats are.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Perfect Candidate rates: