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Luke Walker’s PACmen features a clip of Donald Trump vehemently asking the crowd at one of his rallies, “How stupid are the people of this country to believe this crap?” Unfortunately, Trump was talking not about himself but rather Ben Carson, whose misbegotten presidential run is chronicled in this documentary that recently received its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.
What Trump was specifically referring to was the tale Carson recounted in his rags-to-riches autobiography Gifted Hands about how, as a teenager, he attempted to stab someone only to have his knife broken by his would-be victim’s belt buckle. It was one of the many Carson tall tales which didn’t hold up under scrutiny. And it resulted in the bizarre spectacle of a presidential candidate desperately attempting to convince people that he really did once try to murder someone.
Walker’s documentary offers the first-ever cinematic focus on the so-called Super PACs. They have arisen in the wake of the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which ruled that political action committees could spend unlimited amounts of money to promote a candidate as long as they didn’t — wink, wink — have any direct contact with the campaign. Carson was a prime beneficiary of the decision. A successful neurosurgeon who first attracted widespread attention for his scathing speech at a National Prayer Breakfast delivered to President Barack Obama’s face, he ran for the highest office in the land despite having no experience in politics whatsoever.
That didn’t deter people from forming two organizations, Extraordinary America and 2016 Committee (better known as “Run Ben Run”), that convinced Carson to throw his hat in the ring and attempted to make him the victor in the tightly contested Republican presidential primary. The head of one committee was John Phillip Sousa IV, the great-grandson of the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” among many other patriotic marches. (Really, you can’t make this stuff up.)
“This man has the hand of God in him in every way,” declares one of many Carson supporters attracted to his staunch conservatism and religiosity. They saw him as a perfect “outsider” candidate in an election marked by voter dissatisfaction with career politicians. What they didn’t count on was the rise of Trump and Carson’s own deficiencies as a candidate.
The latter was illustrated by Carson’s inability to prevent himself from constantly making verbal gaffes. Whether it was his claim that the Egyptian pyramids were built for grain storage; his mispronunciation of Hamas so that it sounded like “hummus”; or his assertion that the Chinese were involved in the Middle East, he quickly came across as grossly uninformed and more than a little crazy.
After a strong start, his campaign began a free fall because, as one of the Super PAC officials bitterly puts it, “He keeps talking.” As Carson’s political fortunes plummeted, so did his committees’ finances; by late in the campaign, the assets of one of them had dwindled to $27,000.
Walker was given seemingly unfettered access to the committees’ inner workings, which prove only intermittently compelling. The film alternates between following ordinary campaign workers, many of whom spend an inordinate amount of time praying for their candidate, and focusing on the higher-ups as they discuss Carson’s dwindling prospects during in-person and phone meetings.
Although hopelessly misguided in their choice of candidate, the grass-root workers at least demonstrate heartfelt sincerity and passion. The same can’t be said of the Super PAC leaders, who switch their allegiance to Trump after the businessman candidate begins dispatching all his rivals. This, despite the fact that they abhor him personally and recognize, “This guy wouldn’t know a bible if it him in the head.” Their true motivations become clear in a late-in-the-day meeting when one of them argues that at least Trump will prevent the “socialists from taking all of our money.”
A depressing portrait of a political system that has gone hopelessly off the rails, PACmen is essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand some of the reasons why.
Production company: Scribble Films
Director-screenwriter-producer: Luke Walker
Director of photography: Adrian Price
Editor: Bergen O’Brien
Composer: Cezary Skubiszewski
Venue: Hot Doc
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