[12 February 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“First in the nation! We’re first in line for a reason, because we take it serious!” Indeed, from all appearances, as this citizen declares at the start of Caucus, voters in Iowa there do exactly that. They understand that every four years, their state becomes the focus of nationwide media attention, the most popular destination for presidential aspirants and their staffs as well as legions of political journalists.
Shot during the 2012 campaign, AJ Schnack’s documentary follows the Republican hopefuls as they make their way across Iowa en route to the caucus voting on 3 January. For some candidates, the process is a long and exhausting one; for observers (and perhaps those candidates as well), it’s a bit of a circus. That this particular circus came down to a less than a definitive outcome, as Rick Santorum managed an unexpected win over then frontrunner Mitt Romney, specifically a win comprised of just 34 votes, and a win right away termed “unofficial,” when it was discovered that results from eight precincts were missing from the final tally.
As confusing and strange as this outcome may sound, Caucus indicates that it’s pretty much in line with the process, a process that is equal parts outrageous and unaccountable, entertaining and stressful, a kind of lunacy that more or less openly acknowledged and even touted—by participants as much as by reporters. Certainly, such acknowledgment seems healthy, given the tremendous roller coaster of the primary and then the election seasons, the ups and downs, the media hype and the utterly unexpected turns that always come. Such craziness almost compels that you do not take any of it too seriously.
Still, when you’re inside it, the process can be all-consuming. This much is clear in the film, screening at the Doc Yard 11 February, where it will be followed by a Q&A with Schnack. Opening on Santorum, who spends most of the year before the voting in Iowa (a news report characterizes his campaign as “all but living in Iowa”). In turn, he complains on occasion concerning the lack of media attention his campaign receives, that he’s allotted less than his fair share of time at debates, that campaigns with more money and more initial celebrity suck up all the air. The film offers a few examples in support of Santorum’s contentions, as when cameras flock to Rick Perry when he swoops after announcing his run in August 2011, Michele Bachmann when she arrives in her big bus, underlining her status as “being from Iowa” or even Sarah Palin, not running for anything, but showing up and attracting all kinds of attention for a few minutes at least.
Despite such obstacles, Santorum persists, and so the film returns to him repeatedly, in between other scenes with other candidates, the handheld camera on the ground, milling with the crowds they greet, observing speeches they make, recording the jokes they essay and their concise statements of long held “values” and increasingly nonsensical talking points. Bachmann may be the most tenacious and cartoonish when it comes to this last tactic. At times her cadence turns almost lyrical, as she waves and points at people on the ground from her lofty bus window, yelling out, “See in Ames tomorrow! Bye! Bye, see in Ames tomorrow! Tomorrow in Ames!” At other times, she must rush through her small-business visits (“We love bakeries! As she makes her way to the exit, backed goods in hand) or scheduled presentations, listing her points rapid fire: “I am the candidate that will build the fence, I’m going to repeal Obamacare and abolish the tax code…,” she says, “I’ll abolish a few departments like the EPA… Sorry this has to be so abbreviated!”, all as her broadly smiling husband Marcus is and thumb wrestling with a self-proclaimed Perry supporter in the foreground.
Bachmann’s comedy is hardly isolated, as Herman Cain brings his own sort of standup to the proceedings, introduced in the film as he sings the gospel standard, “Hold on just a little while longer/Everything’s going to be all right,” just before he offers his basic self-characterization, “I think its time for a business problem solver!” Yay, cheers the crowd, small as their numbers may be. The crowds range in size and enthusiasm throughout the film, some looking large in wide shots, like those who assemble to watch New Gingrich and Callista (his affair with Callista was a mistake, concedes one fan, but now, she’s so “heavenly” and he’s so much “more genuine”), but many more of them smallish, gathered informally in small venues like restaurants and town halls, or filling auditoriums to hear snippets of stump speeches one after another. “You want to send a message about the issues you care about,” announces Santorum as he walks away from one brief appearance at a podium, “You know what to do!”
As awkward as such carefully staged bits and pieces might be, they’re not so diverting as some of the lively exchanges with individuals voters, who apparently mean to make their seriousness known. Perry and his team spar briefly with a heckler, telling him, “If you don’t want to listen to him, don’t come,” at which point he announces, “I can do whatever I want, pal. And I can keep doing it, there’s nothing you can do about it.” As Perry exist, the heckler makes fun of his retreat: “Goodbye, fascist!” Gingrich shares a minute with a reporter, showing off his knowledge of zoos: “It’s such a remarkably well done zoo,” he says of one in Iowa, “It’s on my short list of really, really smart zoos.” Marcus Bachmann declares that as First Spouse, his “cause will not be Happy Meals,” but values and a federal law banning gay marriage, and, it sounds like, gayness generally. When Bachmann is approached by a voter who shakes her hand and says, “My name’s Brad and I wish that you would stop teaching people to hate gays,” she smiles brightly as he walks away. “Thank you for giving me your piece. I’m glad that you’re here and sorry that it’s not true.”
Whether such moments make media headlines seems a matter of chance; Romney’s assertion that corporations are people shows up here, as does his effort to make a $10,000 bet on stage with Perry. Caucus makes some fun of the headlines process too, using cute music a and animated highlighted versions of newspapers as plotty intertitles (who’s up, who’s down). That none of this matters, in the end—that the primaries went on and on, that campaigns went up and down and that Romney, the man and campaign with the most money, ended up the candidate—is all foregone. And still, Caucus reminds you, people do take it serious.