Film Review: Caucus

Political junkies looking to relive the slow-motion demolition derby that was the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus will find plenty to chew over in this candid but lightweight fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The 2011 Iowa State Fair captured in AJ Schnack’s Caucus has a frozen-in-amber quality. Just a little of those butter sculptures, livestock demos, and toddling families baking in the bright prairie sun go a long way. What stands out are those interlopers stalking the fairgrounds, grinning and gripping any who come within range, cameras and recorders buzzing like flies. There’s something highly alien about mixing these politicians’ bright and buffed ambitions with the laidback surroundings. It makes for some surreal flashes in the film, like the hippie protestors drumming in the distance, or when an announcer booms out an introduction for “the next President of the United States…Michele Bachmann!”

The 2012 slate of Republican presidential candidates provided a steady caffeine drip for print and TV pundits. The candidates’ antics and gaffes, amplified by an ever-buzzier political climate, regularly exploded into headline-snapping excitement for months. Although Schnack’s film manages to be there when several then-momentous quotes were uttered—Mitt Romney’s infamous “Corporations are people, my friend” or Newt Gingrich’s Occupy takedown: “Go get a job, right after you take a bath”—it ignores the larger media universe swirling around Iowa from August 2011 through January 2012. Instead, it follows the candidates through the cafés, parking lots and conference rooms where they fight to scratch out a win, sometimes one voter at a time.

Caucus is less about the curious machinery of Iowa straw-poll politics then it is about the candidates’ campaigning grind. Using a tack similar to 1992’s Feed—one of the great fly-on-the-wall political documentaries—Schnack follows these men and women as they trudge from rally to debate to impromptu press conference to random interactions with voters and try to make their case. There are no talking heads interrupting it, just interstitial data detailing where the candidates stand at that moment in the polls. Sometimes this works for comical effect, as with Tim Pawlenty, who’s barely introduced before announcing that he’s dropping out.

Schnack’s take on the assembled cadre of conservatives is generally even-handed, though with an unfortunate tendency toward the easy gag. To be sure, some of the candidates make it easy. Witness Rick Perry’s Yosemite Sam take on political debating. But one long take of Ron Paul getting into a minivan seems there simply to show him having a hard time closing the door (the circus-style music in the background is a cheap touch).

As the candidates bump up and down in the polls, the film slides closer to low-key absurdity. The speeches are rigorously studded with worn punch lines and rote talking points, while Bachmann and Mitt Romney seem frozen behind their stiff smiles and poll-tested robot answers. A standout and something of the film’s plucky protagonist is Rick Santorum. Although the former senator’s extreme views on gay rights were and are considered retrograde at best, the film presents him as the one candidate bothering to level with the voters. Hit by xenophobic and race-baiting questions, Santorum refuses to pander and gives thoughtful answers that turn off some listeners. By the time Santorum’s late surge comes, it’s hard to tell whether it’s because he’s tried more than the others to be truthful or because of a few unusually unguarded and emotional outbursts.

Schnack’s hanging-back approach deprives Caucus of any helpful context about the larger election. While this boosts the sensation of flash-in-the-pan comedy, it doesn’t always make for gripping cinema or solid reportage. But then the caucus itself was not the most thrilling contest for some Iowans. “When they get down to two or three,” mutter a few of the more experienced old-timers at the Fair as they walk past another grip-and-grin, “then I’ll worry about it."