Hot On The Trail: "Last Man Standing" Leads Campaign Doc Wave
by Anthony Kaufman
In 1960, Robert Drew, together with direct cinema pioneers D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and Albert Maysles, revolutionized the American documentary with "Primary," a chronicle of the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary race between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Promising "a new kind of reporting, a new form of history," Drew and co. brought the political process to the public in a gripping and immediate way -- through handheld cameras and portable sound equipment -- via a fast-growing medium called television.
Of course, politics and TV still go hand-in-hand. While "Fahrenheit 9/11" may have newly proved movie theaters have a place in the political process, television is still king in much the same way it was in the early days of JFK. "Today's cinema verite for politics is CSPAN's campaign coverage," says veteran documentary filmmaker Paul Stekler. "If you're willing to go with it for a long time, you're able to see all sorts of amazing things."
Following in the footsteps of "Primary," a number of new documentaries about the campaign trail will also make their marks this election season on the small screen. In addition to Stekler's "Last Man Standing: Politics -- Texas Style," there's "Diary of a Political Tourist," a film by Alexandra Pelosi ("Journeys with George") that looks at the 2004 Democratic primary (set to air on HBO in October), and Steve Rosenbaum's "Inside the Bubble," which track the staffers and strategizers of the Kerry campaign (likely slated for release after November 2).
The first out of the gate, "Last Man Standing" is being broadcast tonight on P.O.V. (And if you miss it, the film will be available on DVD through a new P.O.V. partnership with Netflix, the subscription film service, as early as tomorrow, July 21.) As part of the venerable public television program's 17th season and a package of films under the heading "2004 Election Issue Special," "Last Man Standing" is an illuminating and amusing nail-biter about two Texas campaigns and what they could mean for the nation as a whole. (In February 2005, P.O.V. will also air the inspirational document of the first black woman to run for president, "Chisholm '72 -- Unbought and Unbossed.")
On the local level, "Last Man Standing" follows the race between two handsome, white newcomers for a seat in the Texas legislature: Democrat Patrick Rose and Republican Rick Green ("Vote Green, like money," he repeats as his campaign slogan, rather than his one-time admission, "I'm pretty much a right-wing nut"). Serving as a backdrop for this personal, grassroots door-to-door and church-to-picnic campaign is the 2002 statewide races for governor and senate, which pits the cronies of Karl Rove and George Bush against a multi-ethnic "dream team," composed of Latino businessman Tony Sanchez and Dallas' first African-American mayor Ron Kirk. "We felt that 2002 would be a turning point in Texas politics, that it represented a struggle between two competing futures of American politics," Stekler has said.
Less sensationalistic than "Fahrenheit 9/11," "The Hunting of the President," or "Bush's Brain," "Last Man Standing" has faced an uphill battle garnering media attention, says Stekler, "perhaps because it's not going to be in theaters, perhaps because it isn't so obviously partisan. But I'd like to think that craft and a story that pulls you in and let's you figure out some things works too," he adds. "I know that's the case."
For two decades, Stekler has been making films about American politics -- his credits include Sundance special jury prize winner "George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire," "Vote for Me: Politics in America," and "Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics" -- and he sees his own work as different from the current political documentary craze, which he characterizes as "advocacy, rally-the-troops, rile up the audience kind of films."
"Our work is just a different kind of filmmaking," says Stekler, whose crew shot 200 hours of footage over five months. "[This film is story- and character-based. On the surface, it may look like we don't have a point of view, which is actually not the case. I pick the campaigns and candidates I do because they're compelling, because they and their campaigns really show how the electoral process works and, most importantly here, the audience learns something universal about politics in the midst of a really good story."
"Last Man Standing" addresses a complex campaign situation, just as relevant to the future of this country than the more transitory Beat Bush cries of "Fahrenheit 9/11." With the increased growth of minorities and Hispanics in Texas and the rest of the nation, Democrats should have the advantage. But as Karl Rove says at the end of the film, as paraphrased by Stekler, "You can hope demographics do it, but you have to take advantage -- you have to elect politically talented people," adds Stekler. "It's not as if people who vote in elections are only influenced by ethnic ties." If you watch "Last Man Standing" or observed Texas' 2002 elections, you'll see how much Rove's notions were right on the money.
"The work I do, I hope, is about real politics," continues Stekler. "And so it's a reality check about how people get elected. I wouldn't say it's all dirty tricks. But there is plenty of strategy going on, there's plenty of, 'Which candidate is more popular?' We tend to associate issue positions with candidates that we like, as opposed to the other way around, and the same people we elect in student council end up in congress later on."
"I tell folks that while many of this summer's films get you riled up, it doesn't mean much if you then can't go out and win an election," adds Stekler. "And if you want to know how it's done, how you win an election in an American heartland that may be conservative, but is a lot more diverse and a lot more winnable than it might seem at first look, then 'Last Man Standing' isn't a bad place to start."