By placing Denver’s administrative process of organizing and running the 2008 Democratic confab ahead of the event’s political content, AJ Schnack’s “Convention” becomes a bipartisan, upbeat celebration of democracy’s delicate membrane and can-do spirit. Following preems June 17 as SilverDocs’ centerpiece presentation and June 22 at the Los Angeles fest, pic will be in great demand on the circuit and could do decent niche theatrical prior to healthy ancillary.
Sending an invitation to colleagues “down for whatever,” Schnack assembled a core team of lensers that included vet documentarians Daniel Junge (“They Killed Sister Dorothy”), Laura Poitras (“My Country, My Country”), Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (“A Lion in the House”) and Paul Taylor (“We Are Together”).
Helmer’s central strategy — and it is an inspired one — is to emulate in tone and flow of the groundbreaking work of early nonfiction pioneers Robert Drew (a personal hero), Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock. Thus, with the exception of sparingly used talking heads, “Convention” flows seamlessly among the various hotbeds of activity during the convention’s tumultuous four days.
Cheerful Denver mayor John Hickenlooper — cousin of helmer George, in post on his own convention movie — sets the tone early by admitting, “What worries me is really that we don’t know what we don’t know. You can have a lot of really smart people spend a lot of time on something and you’re never going to foresee everything.”
Those really smart people include Democratic National Committee lead city planner Katherine Archuletta, fresh-faced mayoral special assistant Chantal Unfug, enthusiastic deputy mayor Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, unflappable city permit and protest liaison Kevin Scott and Emergency Operations Center director Ellis Stanley. Meanwhile, at the Denver Post, political editor Curtis Hubbard rallies his troops to best the much larger New York Times contingent: “We don’t want to read about Nancy Pelosi’s speech for six days running.”
Emerging as underdogs from these two contingents are Unfug, chasing John Hickenlooper’s accreditation with only hours until he’s due onstage, and Post staff writer Allison Sherry, who buckles under the pressure of her first political assignment but rallies for a strong finish.
The sheer scope of the undertaking aside, conflict and comic relief emerge in the form of Recreate 68, a Denver-based ragtag group led by lefties Mark and Barbara Cohen and their confrontational co-founder, Glenn Spagnuolo. Marching in support of — well, that’s never made clear exactly — their presence morphs from potentially disruptive to piteously ineffectual. “Worst protesters ever,” someone hoots, reinforcing democracy’s fundamental tenet of having to put up with one another.
Crews indeed prove they’re down for whatever, as intimate, seemingly effortless footage abounds of the unfolding dramas and Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s climactic acceptance at Denver’s football stadium. Rooting interest in the participants is sustained by Schnack’s smart decision to reidentify participants throughout the film.
Tech package is crystalline on all fronts. Of particular note are the yeoman efforts of music supervisor Linda Cohen, who mixes Gilbert and Sullivan, vintage political ditties, Americana and even showtunes into a dazzling soundtrack of positivism. Closing title cards chart the bittersweet fates of the major players and notes that Post rival Rocky Mountain News — absent from the proceedings — shuttered six months after the convention.