Friday September 27, 1996
"A Perfect Candidate" takes as its text a remark by a minister, who, commenting on the Senate contest between Republican Oliver North and Democrat Charles Robb, told his congregation, "Those of you looking for a perfect candidate won't find one." Certainly not in that race, and, by implication, nowhere else in American politics either.
For while this shrewd, involving documentary is centered on that 1994 Virginia campaign, one of the screwiest in recent electoral history, its sights are set on bigger game. "A Perfect Candidate" makes you cringe for the entire democratic process. It will also encourage partisans on both sides to ask, not for the first time, how we ended up with the poor choice of politicians we have.
Certainly that contest was not a battle of moral titans. Challenger North had by his own admission consciously misled Congress during the events that became known as Iran-Contra, something that made his candidacy a tough one for even congressional Republicans to swallow.
And incumbent Sen. Robb, the ex-Marine whose career began promisingly as Lyndon B. Johnson's son-in-law, had become enmeshed in scandals involving allegations of infidelity and drug use that led to heckled shouts of "I didn't recognize you with your clothes on" during campaign stops.
At its opening at the state Republican convention that went into a frenzy for North, "A Perfect Candidate" seems to be intent on doing no more than preaching to the liberal converted. It introduces us to North's slick brain trust, led by chief strategist Mark Goodin, a group with a marked tendency toward arrogant gloating.
And then there's the candidate himself, gifted with the practiced grin of a Stepford husband plus the ability to cry on cue. North's initial appearances are spookily similar to outtakes from Tim Robbins' satiric "Bob Roberts," but "A Perfect Candidate" is honest enough to include more and more moments of sincerity as the campaign progresses.
Helping the film in the balance department is the growing realization that North's opponent, Robb, is a hapless individual capable of mistaking a laundromat for a luncheonette. Viewed desperately searching for a hand to shake in a supermarket and waffling his way around reporters' tough questions, Robb seems like an automaton stuck on automatic pilot.
"A Perfect Candidate" follows both men but concentrates on the North campaign because it gave producer-directors R.J. Cutler (who produced the Oscar-nominated "The War Room") and David Van Taylor the most access.
Both sides try to capitalize on the character issue with negative ads, and though North insiders accurately state that "people do not want to vote for Chuck Robb," scenes of their candidate twisting the truth show why many folks continued to have doubts that the former lieutenant colonel was any better. In fact, the most interesting candidates from the evidence presented look to be Republican moderate Milton Coleman and former Democratic governor Douglas Wilder, running as an independent gadfly.
Helping viewers make sense of this circus are two very different ringmasters, both survivors of numerous political battles. Don Baker, a veteran reporter for the Washington Post, has seen enough to be wryly disillusioned with all candidates, but his sharp questioning and willingness to be open to what he hears are an unexpected asset for the filmmakers.
The other spirit guide is North strategist Goodin, a protege of Lee Atwater with some dark political deeds in his past. Still, Goodin is shrewd enough to understand that the public mania for North is "the triumph of anger in politics" and that the key to his winning is how comfortable voters can be made to get with the man.
Goodin is also the source of the smartest remarks anyone makes in "A Perfect Candidate." Caught in a reflective moment, he says "the daily sideshow of getting people elected has a lot to do with dividing, which is the opposite of what it takes to govern." And he accurately accuses the filmmakers of being "all obsessed with the show or you wouldn't be here."
Mostly, however, Goodin and his associates are shown at their silliest and most sophomoric. What "A Perfect Candidate" doesn't show us is how these savvy North operatives were snookered into letting cameras go where peons with pencils are never allowed. When Goodin grumbles at the end of the film about mistakes he won't make again, it's hard not to wonder how long it took him to realize that allowing this kind of access belongs on his list.
A Perfect Candidate, 1996. Unrated. An Arpie Films production, released by Seventh Art. Producer-directors R.J. Cutler & David Van Taylor. Cinematographer Nicholas Doob. Editor Mona Davis. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times