Caucus: AFI Fest Review

Objective almost to a fault, this verite doc could use a bit more substance.

AJ Schnack’s snapshot of the 2012 Republican presidential race catches the candidates in the early stages of defining their campaigns.

For anyone with a hankering to relive the early stages of the Iowa Republican race or straight-up political junkies, Caucus may be just the ticket. General audiences, however, are unlikely to rush into theaters to observe the inner workings of conservative campaigning and the minutiae of Iowa’s electoral process, leaving smaller screens as the most likely destination for AJ Schnack’s observational documentary.

With the 2014 midterm elections less than a year away, the presidential campaigning of 2012 seems almost a distant memory, although there are doubtless a number of candidates still licking their wounds from that contest. Recall the cast of characters: regular guy and former MN governor Tim Pawlenty (who earned the dubious distinction of dropping out of the race first), veterans Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, the informed outsider and former PA senator Rick Santorum, imposing but ultimately tragicomic ex-Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain (the only non-white candidate). Then there were presumptive frontrunners Mitt Romney and Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, who were quickly brought up short by the late entry of TX governor Rick Perry.

In their devotion to a verite style, the filmmakers make no effort to frame or contextualize the Iowa electoral caucuses, a series of county runoffs that don’t actually determine any national party delegates, but rather send representatives to district and state conventions that ultimately select the state’s electoral designees. This is a rough-and-tumble arena where charisma counts as much or more than policy and past track records seem to hold less importance than promises about the future. Bachmann is particularly prone to making Tea Party-baiting commitments that would be nearly impossible to keep, such as dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of conservative critics. In conversation with individual voters, however, she often comes off as forced and brittle, failing to convey the warm image she attempts to embrace.

In the film’s portrayal of events, the empathy badge goes to Santorum, whose down-to-earth demeanor and open discussion about his young daughter’s medical condition won over enough support to give him a huge surge in the polls, although he ultimately dropped out of the national campaign after later losses to Romney and complications with his family situation. Dogged policy-wonk and veteran TX politician Ron Paul repeatedly demonstrates the off-putting style that wins him adherents primarily among the Libertarian-leaning faithful, while Cain relies primarily on his business credentials, applying them sometimes awkwardly to a wide range of political and social issues.

Ultimately it's the trifecta of Romney, Bachmann and heavy-hitter Perry that holds the most interest, as they spar over policy and personal issues, with former congressional leader Newt Gingrich gradually slipping into his eventual role of also-ran. While studiously observational and apolitical in approach if not by implication, Schnack’s run-and-gun style gets up close with candidates, but rarely gets personal.

TV news broadcasts and print-media reports are drafted to stand in for informed commentary, rarely filling that role adequately. The use of multiple camera operators and focus on frequently haphazard situations often result in footage that’s casually framed and frequently unsteady. While a noticeable variation in quality may be the price of direct access to candidates in action, it comes with the drawbacks of too many distracting visual elements and inconsistent audio quality. As a document of the American political process, Caucus offers an intriguing if limited snapshot of a specific campaign season, but lacks either breadth or depth.

Venue: AFI Fest

Production companies: Bonfire Films of America, Rival Pictures/Om Films

Director: AJ Schnack

Producers: AJ Schnack, Nathan Truesdell, Shirley Moyers, Edward Parks

Executive Producers: Niraj Bhatia, Frank Mele

Directors of photography: AJ Schnack, Nathan Truesdell, Bill Ross, Turner Ross

Music: Mark degli Antoni

Editor: AJ Schnack

Not Rated, 104 minutes

Twitter: @CinemaPlanet

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