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A Winning 'Candidate'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 13, 1996

If documentary filmmaking is about identifying the truth, no subject could be more invigorating, amusing and frustrating to probe than American politics. "A Perfect Candidate," in which candidates Chuck Robb and Oliver North vie for the 1994 Virginia senate seat, has just about everything the modern political circus has to offer: negative advertising, demagoguery, flip-flopping on the issues, cynical manipulation of public opinion, shameless lying and an abject refusal to introduce real substance to an election campaign.

What fun it is to watch.

Here’s North, master of the strategically withheld tear, telling a room full of journalists that David Jacobsen, one of the freed hostages from Iran, pleasantly surprised him with a pro-Ollie testimonial for the campaign.

"I’m going to try like the Dickens not to get emotional about it," he says in a quavery voice.

Now here’s the sputtering, wooden Robb, who makes a simple handshake with a voter look like an insurmountable task. "Can I just shake your hand?" he pleads, interrupting a shopper at the supermarket, "so you can go ahead and make your selection?"

"A Perfect Candidate" was created in the cine»ma ve»rite» tradition, a style in which the filmmakers leap on to a subject—their cameras and microphones catching everything—then ride the beast until it slumps to the ground.

Filmmakers R.‚J. Cutler and David Van Taylor ride this political animal all the way into election night—and what a glorious rodeo it is. They were granted considerable access to North’s campaign directors (led by chain-smoking Mark Goodin), who provide amusing, fast-talking, get-tough strategies. But the real entertainment comes courtesy of the candidates. When North attempts to convince a black student that he does not support the Confederate flag, the truth-bending is almost breath-taking. And when Washington Post reporter Don Baker presses Robb to state his position on striker replacement, Robb’s answers seem to have been co-scripted by Garry Trudeau and Lewis Carroll. His position, Robb states, is unchanged. Baker asks what that position is. Robb refuses to state what it is but, he insists, it’s unchanged. In exasperation, Baker appeals to a Robb handler.

"You get us a translation of this, OK?"

"A Perfect Candidate" is serenely damning in its indictment of political campaigns and, by extension, America. Here’s a choice, after all, between someone who admits to lying to Congress and someone who can’t admit to a hotel tryst with a Playboy model. In the words of a frustrated voter, this election wasn’t about which direction Virginia should go in, it was a choice between two diseases.

At the risk of appearing to promote a co-worker, one of the movie’s greatest personalities is Baker, an allegorical Eeyore at the party, who finds both politicians equally bewildering and distasteful. His disgusted reaction to both aspirants provides almost comic relief. Then there’s Goodin, a smart operative who understands the issues, knows his trade but is disarmingly witty about the whole crazy process. Ejected by the Republican National Committee for dirty tricks, and ribbed by many Republicans for siding with North, he wants a victory for his own vindication. Later, as he walks away from defeat, his eyes shining with tears, he vows never to make the mistake of running what he terms a positive campaign again. And you realize with dismay that, whether the clients are North or Dole, Robb or Clinton, the dirt race never ends.

A PERFECT CANDIDATE (Unrated) — Contains profanity and American politics.

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