Grassroots: Film Review

Poli-sci students may roll their eyes at true story of an upstart campaign for Seattle City Council.

Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore and Lauren Ambrose star in director Stephen Gyllenhaal's film about the unlikely candidacy of a single-issue crank in Seattle.

SEATTLE — A campaign movie for viewers who, if they care about politics at all, certainly don't require the full Sorkin treatment, Stephen Gyllenhaal's Grassroots chronicles the unlikely candidacy of a single-issue crank in turn-of-the-millennium Seattle. Playing particularly well with the local crowd here, the picture has a broad-strokes appeal that could connect with young viewers who'd like to believe simple populism can carry the day.

An introductory title claims this is a mostly true story, something locals might dispute. Whatever the nitty gritty, Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore) was indeed a freelance music critic who, convinced that expanding the city's small but historic monorail would solve social ills, ran against a well-established incumbent (Cedric the Entertainer) for city council with the help of Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), another foundering alt-weekly journalist. Grassroots finds its protagonist in Campbell, the mostly level-headed foil for a man who -- given to foul-mouthed stump speeches and hyperbolic rants -- is a candidate only a saint could find credible.

Well, a saint or a stoner: After making a couple of disastrous but impassioned speeches about his about-to-be-stillborn campaign, Cogswell attracts a following of clueless but enthusiastic kids; eventually, the crew of volunteers overrunning Campbell's house is rowdy enough that his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) moves out. Then another downer: 9/11.

The movie takes a big chance in emphasizing the real-life timing of Cogswell's primary election just days after the attacks, especially considering that the payoff -- a rousing speech Cogswell gives supporters -- is reportedly fictional. Gyllenhaal returns multiple times to news footage of the World Trade Center collapsing, and to the shocked faces watching the news, casting a pall over the next few scenes.

That glum mood briefly matches the film's cinematography: Throughout, DP Sean Porter offers an image so hazy it appears to be projected through a clouded lens. Fogginess sometimes afflicts the script, as well: Who exactly is that politically-connected guy played by Christopher McDonald? What happens to the savvy monorail activist (Cobie Smulders) after she chooses to play ball with the campaign? And why, exactly, does anyone pay attention to Cogswell specifically in a town full of passionate activists? Those are questions for a different sort of political yarn.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Production Companies: MRB Productions, Votiv Films, Lanai Productions

Cast: Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cedric the Entertainer, Cobie Smulders, Christopher McDonald, Tom Arnold, Emily Bergl, DC Pierson, Todd Stashwick
Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Screenwriters: Stephen Gyllenhaal, Justin Rhodes
Producers: Matt R. Brady, Peggy Case, Michael Huffington, Peggy Rajski, Brent Stiefel
Executive producers: Jane Charles, Gary Allen Tucci
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Production designer: Laurie Hicks
Music: Nick Urata
Costume designer: Ronald Leamon
Editor: Neil Mandelberg
R, 98 minutes