Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010

'Last Best Chance'

by Chris Barsanti

16 June 2010


Last Best Chance

Director: Michael Camerini, Shari Robertson

The final entry in the ambitious twelve-part television documentary series How Democracy Works is a much more pragmatically delivered thing than its overly idealistic title might suggest. The last best chance refers to the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s fight in 2006 to pull together a “grand bargain” between the Democrats and Republicans to craft a solution to the country’s roiling immigration debate. Everyone knows that it failed, the drama in Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson’s film (which began the story in part two of the series, Mountains and Clouds) comes from watching how the bargain falls apart.

In a word: politics. Although revered as the grey eminence of the Democratic party, and somebody with great pro-immigration bona fides from his landmark 1965 legislation that got rid of many of the old racial quotas, Kennedy was either unlucky or just critically mistaken to have pushed this through in a mid-term election year. The cameras spend most of their time hanging around Kennedy’s offices as his team pushes and pulls to first craft a compromise bill that will placate both conservatives and pro-immigration activists.
Kennedy’s battle-worn visage seems almost a sideline to the process (except when he delivers a fulminating stem-winder of a speech on the Senate floor). The film focuses more on his staffers like his immigration counsel Esther Olivarria, working the phones and the other senators’ staffers, one of those improbably efficient, dutiful warriors who get the heavy lifting of democracy done.

The strategic aphorism that “speed kills” is shown here in the opposite, as the bill is unable to get passed before the Senate goes on recess. Then what seemed like a sure thing gets chewed up in one of those classic millennial politico-media storms, with Lou Dobbs-ian xenophobes cawing about “amnesty for illegals”. One after another, senators fall away.

Though Camerini and Robertson do a great job of presenting complicated legislation, and the manner in which it is passed (or not) in an eminently understandable fashion, their film’s narration betrays a little too much spin. With the whole film literally camped out in one side’s offices for the fight, there’s little serious study of the opposition’s political machinations.

As an elegy for one of the party’s last great liberals and an on-the-spot record of the Capitol Hill grind, the film does its job admirably, but for a nuanced handling of the issue, look elsewhere.

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