The story of a political upstart

BY CATE MARQUIS, FILM CRITIC

Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic film Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is an iconic image of an ordinary guy who finds himself in an extraordinary position, as a U.S. Senator. The citizen politician was a rare thing then but it is rarer still now.

Director Frank Popper’s documentary film Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? follows local political upstart Jeff Smith during his long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination for the seat being vacated by retiring Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt in the U.S. Congress. Among the other candidates was Russ Carnahan, son of Gov. Mel Carnahan. It was widely expected that he would win the nomination, and even the office, based on his name alone.

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Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?, a documentary film about a political unknown with the most ordinary of names, Smith, running against a man with a famous name for an open congressional seat, won the Audience Choice award at the Silverdocs film festival in Washington, D.C. While the film is often funny with an offbeat charm, it is also dramatic and gripping, keeping you on the edge of your seat as it pushes on to its conclusion. Some audience members who were unaware of the results of that election were so moved at the end of the film that they cried, according to the film’s director, Frank Popper.

Following up on its success at the Silverdocs film festival, Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? will be showing in several cities, including Boston. It will be playing here at the Tivoli Theatre starting on Friday, July 27.

Here in Missouri, we are more likely to know that Russ Carnahan won that seat in Congress and even remember details of the unusual political contest that put him there, one of the most eye-catching local races of that year.

But Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? is about the process more than the results of one election. The film follows around candidate Jeff Smith as he rings door bells, makes phone calls, talks to people on the street and generally relentlessly pursues his goal of getting to Congress. Smith, a part-time instructor in political science at Washington University but a newcomer to the political race, waged a non-stop grassroots campaign that took him from political unknown with no name recognition to “this close” to beating the expected winner, Russ Carnahan, whose family has one of the most respected and recognized names in Missouri politics. The field of candidates was wide but in the end, it was so close and the conclusion so unusual that the race garnered national attention.

Lack of name recognition was not Smith’s only problem. He did not fit the media-driven image of a candidate. He’s short, looks too young and even a bit goofy at times. He has a high-pitched voice and even a bit of a lisp. Sometimes he reacts emotionally and “shoots from the lip.” To make things worse, there is even another candidate named Smith on the ballot. But Jeff Smith was smart, relentless, and tirelessly hard-working in his campaign drive, surrounded by a team of equally young, energetic campaign workers.

As Popper follows the candidate around, we get a facinating “fly on the wall,” insider view of a bare-bones political campaign. This cinema veritie experience of being inside a grassroots campaign is one of the most compelling and engrossing parts of the film. The candidate and his crew of supporters are relatively new to the game of campaigning, so many of the things that are caught on film are funny, surprising and even embarrassing, as well as very human and immediate. One of the funniest parts of the film were the interviews with Jeff Smith’s un-political family, who are not very supportive, mostly because they think he is wasting his time to run.

As a piece of filmmaking, the documentary is very polished and skillfully put together, and topped with a great bluesy soundtrack, even though it the first documentary film for this director. Audience members can easily get so caught up in the energy of the campaign workers and the rolling juggernaut of the campaign, that they start rooting for another outcome, even if they have not forgotten how it all turned out. For anyone who has felt frustrated by the political process, and anyone who hasn’t, it is a nearly irresistible film.

Beside the handheld footage of Smith and his team, Popper also includes the more expected interviews with staff and supporters. Although Smith’s staff had never headed up a political campaign, they have a certain level of expertise from having worked with Howard Dean and other candidates, plus the education and knowledgeable background to pull this off. Jeff Smith launched a similar combination of bands of young volunteers, grassroots, door-to-door campaigning and internet-savvy techniques that the Dean campaign had used. Howard Dean even visited St. Louis and appeared at a Jeff Smith rally.

As a rare inside peek into the inner workings of a campaign, the film is priceless. It is less revealing about the inner workings of Jeff Smith but perhaps that would be asking for too much.

Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? is a fascinating, even funny documentary film, a proven audience-pleaser that might spark new interest in running for office.