'Mr. Smith': A Poli Sci Class Worth Taking

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

If, as Tip O'Neill famously observed, all politics is local, then all campaigns are retail. But can retail succeed against the wholesale muscle of money, incumbency and dynasty?

That's the question implied in the title of "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" and it's a question, as we enter yet another midterm silly season, well worth asking. What's more, it's a question that, despite its potential to be a yawn of a civics lesson, comes to surprising life in this funny, engrossing and affectionate documentary.

In 2004, a 29-year-old college instructor named Jeff Smith decided to run for the Missouri congressional seat recently vacated by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. He tossed his hat into a ring already crowded with nine other candidates, one of whom, Russ Carnahan, was the son of a former governor and U.S. senator. In a burst of energy, idealism and ingenuity reminiscent of the late Paul Wellstone, Smith rallied a team of political newbies just as indefatigable as he was and managed to get some skin in the game despite, as one aide recalls, looking "like he's 12 and sounding like he's castrated." (Smith indeed does possess a disarmingly high voice; among the myriad indignities he suffers on the campaign trail is a voter critiquing his lisp.)

Like the 1993 classic "The War Room," which defined the genre of political docs, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" provides a lively, amusing and intimate peek into the inner workings of a campaign fight, in this case between a bright, appealing underdog and the creepiest political spawn since "The Manchurian Candidate's" Raymond Shaw.

And, like any classic narrative, in this story the hero's vulnerabilities are also his very strengths -- in this case an unusually personal and empathic grasp of race (Smith teaches African American history), which ultimately gives way to surprising naivete about the realities of how race plays out in electoral politics. Still, viewers and voters can't count Smith out, as filmmaker Frank Popper ratchets up the suspense and keeps the audience guessing until the bittersweet end -- which, it turns out, isn't quite the end.

While Congress debates what to do about voter fraud, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" arrives as a timely reminder that, rather than people voting illegally, our real worry should be getting people to vote at all (and when they do vote, making sure they're counted). More than big money or big family names, Smith's real enemy throughout the campaign is apathy, which Popper captures early in the film with a shot of a doormat reading "Go Away," an image that's intercut with various scenes of the voting public dismissing him, and Smith's own parents telling him he shouldn't run.

Deeply absorbing and moving with the caffeinated speed of Smith's own feisty campaign, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" is at once a celebration of small-d democracy and an elegy to it, a portrait that will surely inspire and infuriate viewers. And once they take this particular peek at how the sausage is made, with luck they'll want to start working on a new recipe.

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (82 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is not rated. It contains some profanity.

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