Although a comedy, The Campaign is a refreshingly candid assessment of the current political climate in the United States.
Actually, the film is more than just candid. It is an unrelenting and scathing attack on the moral hypocrisy and financial corruption inherent in American political campaigns.
If The Campaign weren’t a comedy it probably would never have been made. Or it would have been an independent film, produced by George Clooney, eking out a two-week run in a handful of art theatres before being condemned to overstock baskets in
Boasting the talents of director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Dinner for Schmucks) and lead actors Will Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis, The Campaign is a very funny film.
Yet the raw and often slapstick comedy occasionally detracts from the film’s serious political message.
No one needs to be reminded that this is an election year and that big money will play a role in deciding who sits in the Oval Office come January A recent cover of Time magazine ran the header, “How to Buy the White House” and featured a “For Sale” sign under which was written, “Asking: $2.5 billion.”
The Time issue could have been The Campaign’s startling point. The film delves deeply into the issue of election financing. Its conclusions are stark but also – as the Time story makes clear – not too far from the truth. Campaigns are won or lost long before people go to the polls.
North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Will Farrell) is brash, boorish, amoral and none too bright. His campaign platform is “America, Jesus, Freedom.” In one scene he says, “Shit, I don’t know what it means, but people sure love it when I say it.”
Eager to be seen as an Everyman, Brady appears in campaign commercials with workers of every snipe, claiming that each group is the “backbone of America.” With a group of teachers, Brady strays from his script: “Schools is this nation’s backbone,” has says, partly channeling Dan Quale and partly Ferrell’s own Saturday Night Live George Bush persona.
After a potentially campaign-ending gaffe involving a tragically misplaced (and very sexual) phone message, Brady and his campaign manager, Mitch Wilson (Jason Sudeikis), have to do a little damage control. Not a big problem. Brady has run unopposed in his congressional district for years.
That situation changes when two powerful businessmen, Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), stir things up by entering a candidate of their own to run against Brady.
Tourism director for the city of Hammond, Marty Huggins, has a well-connected father (Brian Cox) who is a close friend of the influential Motches. But while he is a well-meaning family man, the younger Huggins is a disaster as a potential politician. He is overweight, uncoordinated, and whiny. “He looks like Richard Simmons crapped out a hobbit,” says his obnoxious father. Not exactly great candidate material in the media-conscious arena of American politics.
But as the Motch Brothers (clearly a satirical take on the powerful and influential – as well as right-wing – Koch Brothers) say, “We are job creators; we are also candidate creators.” In politics, money talks. Everything else walks some distance behind.
At stake is North Carolina land that the Molch brothers want to develop. In order to do so, they need a congressman in their pocket who will support their plans to build factories that not only pollute the environment but also pay workers only 50cents an hour. Of course, no American would work for that amount. So the brothers intend to move their business interests in China to the United States, importing low-paid Chinese workers as part of the deal. “It will save a fortune in shipping,” says one of the brothers. “We call it ‘in-sourcing.’ When we tested the idea with focus groups it went through the roof.”
Even though the Brady campaign initially views Huggins as a political lightweight, Brady comes out fighting dirty. Huggins is clearly no match for the seasoned campaigner. So the Motch brothers enlist Tim Wattley (a creepy Dylan McDermott) as Huggins’ campaign manager. Imagine Karl Rove, Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy remade as a Hollywood hunk and you have Wattley. He whips Huggins into shape,
making him leaner, meaner and tougher.
The campaign gets even dirtier. Jockeying for position in a crowd to kiss a baby, Brady takes a swing at Huggins with disastrous results (resulting in a dip for Brady in the polls); Brady retaliates by painting the heavily mustachioed Huggins as a potential Al Oaeda or Taliban operative (a similar dip for Huggins). And so on. The two candidates yo-yo in the polls until the day of the election when they are neck and neck.
The Campaign cleverly avoids partisan politics. While Cam Brady is portrayed as a John Edwards-style Democrat (he appears in a photo with a smiling Bill Clinton), the film manages to be critical of both parties without pointing a finger at either one. There are no images of elephants or donkeys anywhere to be seen and neither party is identified by name.
While conservatives will claim a liberal Hollywood agenda at work, The Campaign pulls no punches in painting Democrats and Republicans as cut from the same cloth. Indeed, the fact that the parties are regarded as interchangeable is underscored when the billionaire Motch brothers drop their original candidate and put their financial backing behind the other.
The film’s weakness, in my view, is that it takes a sharp Capra-esque tum at the end, which seems to be at odds with the rest of the film’s tone. The outcome of the election is a powerful statement about how little democracy means in America.
Yet, almost anticipating the fact that American audiences have a hard time accepting cynical film conclusions, the filmmakers allow human decency and personal integrity to win the day. Perhaps, at some level, we need that. But it feels a little as if someone remade The Manchurian Candidate and gave it an upbeat, life-affirming ending.
Ross Perot claimed in a quote that is used that the beginning of the film, “War has rules, mud wrestling has rules. Politics has no rules.” The Campaign effectively underscores that point.