A surreal slice of presidential primary campaigning is chronicled with dogged verite detail in “Caucus,” director AJ Schnack’s portrait of eight Republican nomination hopefuls engaged in good old-fashioned retail politics during the run-up to the 2012 Iowa caucus. As political contests go, this particular GOP race offers a fortuitously movie-ready dogfight complete with larger-than-life personalities and seismic shifts in the polls. Regardless, few viewers on either side of the political aisle are likely to be eager to revisit such a polarizing and already well-documented chapter of the recent past, signaling limited commercial prospects for Schnack’s fascinating but only intermittently insightful film.
Although every candidate from early dropout Tim Pawlenty to presumptive frontrunner and eventual nominee Mitt Romney is accounted for here, the opposing trajectories of Tea Party darlings Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann ultimately earn the most attention. It’s a sharp contrast: the underdog appeal of former Senator Santorum’s surprising come-from-behind surge versus the hubris of Congresswoman Bachmann’s rise and fall following an auspicious victory in the Ames Straw Poll. While both candidates are united by hardline social conservative stances on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion rights, “Caucus” conveys that it’s the differences in personality (Santorum comes across as tireless and authentic, Bachmann as arrogant and robotic) that matter most in one-on-one campaigning.
Any such conclusions, however, are judiciously left to the audience. Schnack’s observational approach studiously avoids editorializing, allowing the words and actions captured by the cameras to speak for themselves (an inexplicable sequence of Ron Paul’s difficulties closing a car door is the closest Schnack gets to a cheap shot, and feels out of step with the rest of the film). The refusal to either ridicule or deify its chosen subjects might make the film a tougher sell for strict partisans, but the choice reps a refreshing change from sound-bite-oriented political coverage and didactic documentaries. It also provides expanded context for controversial moments such as Romney’s “corporations are people, my friend” retort to a heckler and Newt Gingrich imploring Occupy protestors to “go get a job, right after you take a bath” during a televised debate.
More than anything, the pic’s fly-on-the-wall footage channels both the uncertainty and the absurdity of life on the campaign trail. It’s silly one moment — Herman Cain commiserating with a Republican National Committee member that a Fox News debate moderator wasn’t conservative enough, or Bachmann bizarrely admitting that she was the last student in her class to learn how to tell time (especially hilarious in light of her frequent tardiness to campaign events) — and gravely serious the next, with Rick Perry swapping stories with a WWII veteran or Santorum deftly handling blatantly racist questions from voters concerned about illegal immigration.
Tech package is satisfactorily straightforward. The most notable flourish is Juan Cardarelli and Eric M. Levy’s graphic design charting the pols’ vacillating positions in the polls. Pic opens and closes with a pair of upbeat vintage REO Speedwagon tunes, hitting just the right note of energetic (if unmistakably cheesy) optimism.