Nothing lies closer to the heart of democracy than the election of our nation’s officials, which is one reason why electoral politics as they are practiced today are such a turn-off. Now that the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to unlimited tidal swells of cash from corporations, foreign as well as domestic, the idea of "one vote, one voice" may be forever eclipsed by the notion that money equals free speech: If you have more in quantity of one, you have a greater ability to exercise the other. If you’re poor, you’re out of luck; moreover, no one in power is much going to care what you think.
Contemporary elections are not about ideas as much as they are about images, and they are less about mandates than memes. A simple, evocative concept that can be summed up on a bumper sticker has replaced substantive analysis and in-depth thought; partisan passion has superseded informed decision making when it comes time to cast a vote--for those who show up to exercise that privilege. But even that is not the worst of it: The dirty little secret about elections isn’t even the scandalous fact that so few citizens of this country take the time or the trouble to vote; it’s that so few actually understand what’s at stake.
Election movies aren’t likely to change anybody’s mind about candidates or spur get-out-the-vote drives, but they can serve as a sort of cultural barometer. In 1992, Tim Robbins’ "Bob Roberts" mocked the rise of the neo-con, while also warning its audience, albeit in a way cloaked in satire, about the not-at-all funny dangers of shallow, power-hungry candidates appealing to our tendency for mass hysteria. Since then, we’ve seen the film’s japes ripen into prophecy. How many elections have been characterized by ubiquitous vows that if Candidate X wins the White House, Citizen Y will move to Canada / Mexico / Ireland / Aruba, never to return?
Since Ronald Reagan, if not John F. Kennedy, presidential elections have looked more like contests between cults of personality than competing visions laid out by responsible, competent statesmen. More lately, particularly in the 2008 election, voting has taken on an almost apocalyptic urgency. Four years ago we were assured that if Barack Obama became president, he’s prove to be the Antichrist; moreover, we were told with straight faces and shrill-edged intonations, network television would be broadcasting hard-core porn 24/7, while right-wing talk radio was snuffed out by government goons.
The downward trajectory of our political process is depressing enough. The fact that election-year movies have similarly dumbed down, becoming too narrowly focused in theme while growing overly broad in comedy, is an insult to what may eventually prove a lethal injury to our form of government.
Case in point: "The Campaign," a not-very-funny "comedy" starring Will Ferrell as a corrupt Democratic incumbent and Zach Galifianakis as his inexperienced Republican challenger. The film makes its most crucial point early on, when a pair of billionaire brothers, played by John Lithgow and Dan Ayckroyd, decide among themselves that the incumbent, Cam Brady (Ferrell) is no longer of use to them and must be replaced. They decide, almost offhandedly, that he should be replaced by the ineffectual, but presumably pliable, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), whose father is a fellow right-wing businessman.
There’s no mistaking this film’s basic plot as a crayon sketch of how corrupt our system has become in real life; the Koch brothers really do finance major political movements (they were, reportedly, early financial supporters of the Tea Party), and when one of the film’s "Motch brothers" tells a recalcitrant member of Congress to either play ball or see their cash finance a mudslide of negative advertising against him, the moment has a malicious chill that seems all too plausible.
The problem with Congressman Brady is not that he’s going to take a stand against the Motch brothers as they build a complex of sweat shop factories in North Carolina and staff them with Chinese laborers who will be paid fifty cents per day. Rather, the problem is that Brady is a clueless sex addict who has attracted prurient media attention by leaving a scandalously explicit phone message for a mistress... on the wrong answering machine.
Huggins, on the other hand, is a tabula rasa who can be molded and presented in any way that the Motch brothers, their hired gun and campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), and focus groups polls see fit. Huggins is, in short order, instructed to lose his beloved pug dogs and get himself, his house, and his family made over so that they seem hard-edged, rough and tumble, larger than life, and utterly prefabricated.
But Brady is not going down without a fight. As the contest grows hotter, and Brady’s missteps mount up (he makes a hash of explaining that scurrilous phone message; then he socks a baby; then he assaults a cute dog), the attack ads get more and more vicious. The Huggins camp releases a commercial showing Brady’s neglected son calling Huggins "dad" during an amusement part outing; Brady, in retaliation, uses his smart phone to record a video document of his seduction of Huggins’ wife.
Long before this point, though, we’ve so thoroughly left behind any credible representation of actual life and real people that the movie lacks any political punch. Satire is all about illustrating weaknesses or absurdities in prevailing arguments in such a manner that the adherents of those arguments may not even realize, until the din of laughter reaches their ears, that a depiction of their world view even is satire. The cardboard villains pulling the strings don’t fit the requirements here, and neither does Brady (his John Edwards haircut and enthusiasm about his extramarital affair notwithstanding). As for Huggins, he’s played by Galifianakis the same way Galifianakis seems to play most of his characters: As a gay man oblivious to the fact that he’s gay.
With a little more imagination and daring, that could have given the film a little more bite, and a lot more comedy. After all, comedy is all about life’s tough, confusing, and even painful truths, and the number of anti-gay Republicans who have turned out to be closet cases in recent years promises to be a rich comedic resource to screenwriters who know what to do with such material.
Writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell are either not equipped for that degree of knowing, sophisticated, and daring writing, or studio suits refused to let them go there. It’s a pity, because what we’re left with isn’t just a hash of so-so ideas mixed with some of the most blatant abuses in a system rife with abuse, it’s not even executed convincingly. (Again, why? Director Jay Roach has proven his satiric chops with the "Austen Powers" movies, not to mention his political acumen, having been the director of HBO’s "Game Change," an incisive dramatization of how Sarah Palin went from overnight sensation to late-night laughingstock and wrecked John McCain’s prospects in 2008.) The moment most grounded in reality in the entire film comes with the results of the race between Brady and Huggins, but even that is confounded by simplistic and scoff-worthy scripting that feels careless and tossed off.
This movie was never cut out to be "Game Change," but it might have been a worthwhile hour and a half as we prepare, anxiously and irritably, to head to the polls, or to eschew them, this November. Regrettably, "The Campaign" seems to have lost its way, starting with a concept that should have worked as scathing, smart commentary and stumbling into the realm of idiot blather... which, in its way, is still an indictment of campaign politics. By taking such a disastrous turn, however, the film comes far too close to becoming the very thing it was presumably meant to mock.