Mr. Cao Goes to Washington

The current GOP nomination race has many wondering how things shifted so far right that Republicans risk alienating much of their own membership.

The current GOP nomination race has many wondering how things shifted so far right that Republicans risk alienating much of their own membership. One might think a centrist realignment would help — but as “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington” shows, the party may have backed itself into a corner on that front, too. Documenting the brief, controversial tenure of the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress, S. Leo Chiang’s documentary is an engrossing look at the bitter divisiveness of the present U.S. political landscape. It should stir timely debate in planned PBS broadcast this fall, with fest travel until then.

A childhood emigre and seminary student turned immigration lawyer, New Orleans resident Anh “Joseph” Cao became politically active in the wake of the government’s dismal response to Hurricane Katrina. But his experience was minimal before he ran to represent Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional district in 2009, a post not held by a Republican in almost a century.

The circumstances were fortuitous for change, however, with the African-American incumbent having left office amid a corruption scandal, clearing the path for an otherwise impossible opposition win. For his part, Cao admitted his party choice was largely due to the fact that, as a Roman Catholic, he was staunchly opposed to abortion rights. (At one moment here, seemingly forgetting that he’s miked, Cao confides to another office holder: “You and me — political affiliations, it’s only for convenience.”)

A largely poor, black constituency was initially impressed by Cao’s dedication to its welfare, particularly in the realms of education, hospitals and enraged response to the 2010 BP oil spill. But once he voted in favor of “Obamacare” health reform — the sole House Republican to do so — GOP response was swift and damning, with some campaign donors demanding their money back and a recall petition circulated. (Cao also vexed the party by voting for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and in favor of limits on corporate political donations.)

In a re-vote, Cao reluctantly sided with his party, citing abortion as the reason. By this time, however, Cao had few allies. Though he’d touted a congenial relationship with Obama (who’s seen taking a liking to the Caos’ own two adorable daughters), the final blow to his re-election came when the president endorsed his Democratic rival, despite the latter being a disbarred attorney.

Seen back in civilian life several months after his re-election defeat, Cao reflects that public office is more about political payback and party loyalty than doing the right thing. A figure of considerable apparent integrity and honesty, Cao seems a casualty of an atmosphere in which crossing hard party lines for any reason is automatically considered betrayal, a formula that’s increasingly stalemated Washington and led to widespread voter disenchantment.

Despite that sobering lesson, “Mr. Cao” is lively and engaging, sparked by its protag’s openness and some colorful supporting personalities. With the emphasis on his rocky fortunes on home turf, however, the pic could have used more insight into the experience of being an inexperienced newbie wading into national politics.

Brisk assembly is pro.

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington

  • Production: A Caam and Walking Iris Media production. Produced by S. Leo Chiang. Executive producer, Stephen Gong. Directed by S. Leo Chiang.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Bao Nguyen, Chiang; editor, Matthew Martin; music, T. Griffin; sound, Philip Perkins. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, March 12, 2012. (In San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival.) Running time: 71 MIN.
  • With: With: Anh "Joseph" Cao, Kate Huang, Bryan Wagner, Jonathan Tilove, Winnie Brown, Clancy DuBos, Shane French, Fenn French.