No matter your political leanings, you should step right up and enjoy the circus of the caucus, specifically the Iowa Republican caucus of 2012. AJ Schnack’s new film follows in the great tradition of campaign docs like Primary and The War Room, but it’s also a whole different animal, a juggling act that doesn’t focus on any one candidate in the race while offering something both timelessly revealing and specifically historical. Caucus, as the film is almost too simply titled, is a competition doc where the contest endpoint is the same for all candidates yet they all seem to be playing a different game. It’s like one is playing chess, another performing magic, that one is dancing and this one is trying to be the last one standing with his hand on a pickup truck.
One of the great things about Caucus is that you can’t tell if Schnack (who previously documented the 2008 DNC with the film Convention) is a Republican, Democrat or other. All you can tell is that he’s looking for human beings among the presidential hopefuls, just as the voters of Iowa are doing themselves. The problem is, and the film illustrates this perfectly, that the varied ensemble in the race for the GOP ticket are all trying to sell themselves as that relatable individual, and they’re all making an extremely awkward go of it. Many of the candidates are seen attempting to connect with regular folk and to come across as regular folk, but they’re just not regular folk. They are out of touch with the real people, and that’s not intended to necessarily be a criticism against them nor their platforms. It’s just a fact, and sometimes a funny one at that.
Schnack and what seems to be a hundred cameramen (incredibly, it was only four: Schnack, producer Nathan Truesdell and Tchoupitoulas directors Bill and Turner Ross) covered the ground throughout the state, conveying a sense of their being everywhere, on top of every major figure in the running and from multiple angles, too. The director’s own work as editor of the film is a triumph of not only cobbling and condensing six months’ worth of footage but also finding and presenting the central narrative amidst the simultaneous sideshows. This while serving up a necessary glimpse into what it all means above and beyond the isolated events they’ve recorded and the outcome of this one step of the campaign journey.
Documentaries of this sort have different significance depending on whether the featured party or parties are winners or losers in the end. The fact that none of these characters became President of the United States aligns Caucus a bit more with the 1984 Frontline episode following Gary Hart, So You Want to Be President, and Al Franken: God Spoke (produced by D.A. Pennebaker, who worked on Primary and co-directed The War Room, and co-directed by War Room co-director Chris Hegedus), which isn’t directly about a presidential candidate yet is the most telling film on the problems for the Democrats in the 2004 election.
What all we can learn from the content of Caucus in retrospect, though (and much of that will not be fully known for some time), isn’t as interesting at the moment as is simply experiencing this political circus in action. The fact that Schnack doesn’t go for the kind of access we see in the Pennebaker trio, whether by picking one central candidate or not, puts the doc more on the level of the Iowans. The film is a bit voyeuristic and a bit candid, but all together it’s just what’s seen and overheard. The lens we see the main characters from is somewhere between press and amateur — though I mean and I stress neither that this film is remotely journalism nor unprofessional. It’s cinema of the focused, artistic bystander, the perspective of the perceptive everybody.
It’s a film through our eyes, but we weren’t there yet, and it doesn’t matter who we are, where we’d have sat or stood or whether we are adult or child (there are some great low POVs) and certainly what our preconceptions of these politicians and would-be politicians are. If we think any of them is ridiculous that’s probably on us and what we bring to the film, minus a few moments that might appear to be intended for ridicule, such as when one candidate has trouble closing a van door and the camera lingers on the scene for the full embarrassment or when another candidate’s spouse is acting unbelievably stranger than any fictional character would in the same situation.
Ultimately, Caucus narratively winds down to being about two of those eight or so initial characters (including the official names on the ballot and a couple others), and of those two only one candidate turns out to be the film’s primary protagonist (pun unintended). In the context of storytelling it doesn’t matter who he or she is, famously. There’s a narrative that can be found in the stats and records and eventually history books. And then there’s a character study that might take you by surprise if you do consider the person’s celebrity outside of the doc, or will just take you by the heart if you ignore your personal prejudices. Schnack’s respect for and to this individual is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a nonfiction film.
If there’s anything that bogs the film down, it’s that there is way too much text on the screen throughout the movie. It can be a distraction, even if the story Schnack is telling needs both the expositional titles and the majority of the captioning for the audience’s sake (some of the dialogue they catch is near-miraculous). Caucus also features an expositional device in the form of fake newspaper graphics, which are helpful yet also inconsistent. For instance, a number of candidates are introduced into the film by way of these pages, but others are not. This might be due to the eventual focus on those fewer characters over the whole, but at the start it comes off like a mistake.
But again, Caucus is working with a different sort of time span and physical scope than the verite films it’s comparable to. Primary itself had expository voiceover narration. Remarkably, The War Room managed to avoid all written exposition, using only actual newspaper headlines for little context here and there. The caucus is not only wider than the settings and situations of those films but also far more chaotic, and meaningfully so. It’s not so much that Schnack is unable to stay on a scene or conversation the way Pennebaker and Hegedus could with The War Room, it’s that the scenes and conversations he’s covering are rarely so static or abiding.
That makes Caucus a real accomplishment, its taking the snapshots of this fast-moving animal and putting it together in pieces to show us something that resembles the whole beast in motion. It’s next level Eadweard Muybridge, in a way. It’s also the next level political campaign documentary, albeit one that has a few bugs to work out still.
Caucus opens Fridy in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Cneter