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'A Perfect Candidate': Voter's Choice

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 12, 1996

A Perfect Candidate," R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor's captivating film about the 1994 Virginia Senate race between Oliver North and incumbent Charles S. Robb, is the best American documentary since "Hoop Dreams" and one of a small handful of essential films about politics in this country.

For voters, choosing between these two political evils is the choice between "the flu or the mumps."

North, the Republican, rose to prominence as the pivot man in the Iran-contra affair and is portrayed by his opponent as a liar who had misled Congress. Robb, the Democrat, is characterized as a womanizer by detractors who pointed to an incident in which the senator was discovered in a motel room with a young model.

Issues? What issues? To deflect criticism, North returns repeatedly to the question of motive. In trading arms for hostages in Iran, he claims, his aim was always to "save lives." Is that what Robb had on his mind when he checked in for a "massage"? North asks.

However, if the candidates are evenly matched in personal sleaze, their campaign styles couldn't be more different. In North, veteran campaign manager Mark Goodin has a thoroughbred loaded with raw talent. "He's like Elvis," Goodin offers. On the trail, his handlers crow, they don't have to drum up a crowd; all they have to do is stand still.

Robb, on the other hand, doesn't need an opponent to make him look bad, having mastered the dubious art of rope-a-doping himself. In one debate, the senator becomes so flummoxed in his response that you think he has a knot in his tongue.

The main players here are richer, more complex and more vividly drawn than the characters in most recent fiction films. Of these, Goodin, the mastermind behind the North crusade, makes the strongest -- though hardly the most favorable -- impression. An avowed political partisan, Goodin is shown as a man with only one mission -- winning. He knows the system is broken, but he's too far into the game to make any reforms. "We provide daily entertainment," he muses. "What we are not providing is serious solutions to what's going on in the country. Not us, not Chuck, not Clinton, not Bush. Not anybody."

But if Goodin appears to have the morals of a tiger shark, no one else fares much better. Wandering around a supermarket searching for hands to shake, Robb looks more like Gomer Pyle than Elvis. And when asked again about her husband's indiscretions, Lynda Robb is caught off guard with a frozen-faced smile, gasping for a response.

Supposedly, political mercenaries like Goodin are used to protecting their employers from embarrassing public displays. Pull out a movie camera, though, and they spill their guts. In a particularly embarrassing moment, Goodin profanely demonstrates for the camera how he would really like to respond to the press while an assistant nervously shuffles his feet.

The movie sticks with the candidates as they move from shopping mall to rifle range to church. At each destination, North plays masterfully on the frustration of the electorate, calling for citizens to take back their government from Bill Clinton and his crowd of liberal Washington elites. He lays out a vision, all right. Meanwhile, Robb is shown emphasizing his main strength -- namely, that he's not Ollie North.

Undoubtedly, "A Perfect Candidate" will be compared to "The War Room," the 1993 documentary (on which Cutler also worked) about the people behind Clinton's successful 1992 election bid. But in its complete lack of reverence for the political process, this film's true precursors are such movies as "His Girl Friday" and other great newspaper comedies of the '30s. Like the candidates, the press also comes under scrutiny, and if politicians are depicted as shameless opportunists, the media are portrayed as cynical witnesses to the decline of democracy.

In this regard, The Washington Post's Don Baker represents generations of skeptical, hard-bitten newspaper professionals. Seen through his jaded eyes, the process by which we select our leaders becomes a farcical circus, as funny as it is tragic. Still, a powerful sense of despair over the state of political discourse in the country comes through, as well. In "A Perfect Candidate," Cutler and Van Taylor reveal just how low politics has become. What's worse, there's no end in sight. When North loses, Goodin is convinced it's because he pulled his punches.

Won't make that mistake again, he vows.

A Perfect Candidate is not rated.

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