Documentary filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo crisscrossed Ohio during the 15 days before the 2004 presidential election hoping to cover a breaking story on voter fraud. They emerged with a very different movie, “… So Goes the Nation,” about the underlying strategies that can determine victory or defeat. Combining testimony by leading political gurus from both sides with coverage of voters and volunteers, “Nation” posits a campaign sabotaged as much by ineptitude as by savvier opposition. Neither newly revelatory nor formally innovative, docu’s even-handed style cannily enables IFC’s simultaneous Oct. 4 release in theaters and on cable.
For those who were either too elated or too demoralized to follow the postmortems, pic offers a concise overview of the general consensus of what went right or wrong — depending on your point of view — with Democrats and Republicans surprisingly in accord on many major points.
By contrasting hindsight commentary with the immediate excitement and suspense of the race, the filmmakers are able to neatly organize (some might argue too programmatically) what real-time television coverage could only messily juggle.
Stern and Del Deo recap the general tenor of Democratic candidate John Kerry’s approach with judiciously chosen clips of key images, tracing how those images were subverted and retooled by President Bush’s machine into negative ads, complete with flip-flop props and slogans.
Expert insights are provided by four high-ranking officials from each camp: campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, communications director Tad Devine, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and consultant Paul Begala for the blue team; chief strategist Matthew Dowd, media director Mark McKinnon, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and campaign manager Ken Mehlman for the red team.
The filmmakers also follow three volunteers. It becomes clear that the two parties, in their attempts to sway the all-important Ohio constituency, employed philosophically antithetical political tactics. While the Democrats pursued the ever-elusive swing voter, the Republicans sought to deepen their own base, delivering thousands of extra rural and Bible Belt adherents to the polls.
Pic retains just enough of its initial mandate to render its offhand citations of voter fraud somewhat disingenuous. The filmmakers cover irregularities at the polls, and the insufficient number of voting machines in Democratic districts with large black populations. But the widespread allegations of fixed voting machines, admittedly impossible to verify, pass completely unmentioned.
Some of pic’s best one-liners come from Paul Begala, who marvels aloud how Bush can possibly get away with his prefab folksiness: “If he’s a Texas rancher, I’m a Hassidic diamond merchant.”
He also bemoans Kerry’s lack of a single, simple message: “We’re saying ‘JHOS’ (jobs, health, oil and security) when their message is ‘I’ll protect you from people who want to kill you’!”
Tech credits are undistinguished.