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AFI Docs Review: “Caucus”

A.J. Schnack captures the lead-up to the 2012 Iowa caucus in infinitesimal detail in this US premiere.

Still of Caucus via AFI Docs.

We have the benefit of hindsight to enjoy watching
A.J. Schnack’s new film about the Republican primary race in the months leading up to the 2012
Iowa caucus, but it’s also possible we could have used a little more time to get the
taste of deep-fried butter and Godfather’s Pizza out of our mouths.

Not that there aren’t moments in the film that, almost shockingly, the passage of
time has all but eradicated—Tim Pawlenty flipping pork chops at the Iowa State Fair, say, or
Sarah Palin strutting around in a tight white T-shirt and stoking the speculation embers into
a veritable conflagration. That was back in August of 2011, when
Michele Bachmann was—now somewhat unbelievably—Mitt Romney’s fiercest competitor, tooting her campaign bus horn over and over again (it starts
to feel like a metaphor) and winning the Ames straw poll that same month.

Schnack documents all the eccentricities of the leadup to Iowa in infinitesimal detail,
from the way Bachmann tenderly pats an elderly woman’s shoulder and coos at her to
Mitt Romney’s statement that corporations are people (my friend). His camera is everywhere—sometimes
improbably so. He’s in the lobby filming while an Iowa state representative complains
to a Republican that the Fox News hosts at the previous night’s debate were too critical
of the candidates. He’s there when
Herman Cain hands a woman his business card, leaving both giggling. And he pans in on
Ron Paul attempting to close a car door for what starts to feel like an unfairly long time.

But beyond letting his camera linger for a smite too long on a bead of sweat or a
grimace, Schnack doesn’t editorialize. There was more than enough of that going on
at the time, so it’s almost a relief to just sit quietly and draw our own conclusions
as Romney offers
Rick Perry a $10,000 bet and
Marcus Bachmann insists on thumb-wrestling various strangers. (If he wins, he tells them, they have
to vote for his wife.) The newsier moments are the least interesting—it’s when the
camera pauses on
Rick Santorum at the back of the room, seemingly unaware he’s being filmed, that you’re most intrigued
by what’s unfolding.

It’s Santorum who becomes the unlikely hero of the film, both by coming in an enormously
close second in the eventual ballot (he eventually won after a recount) and by seeming
to fascinate the director, who follows him and his pickup truck around Iowa for much
of the second half of the movie. Compared to the noisy, attention-grabbing campaigns
of the other contenders, Santorum’s thoughtful discussion of his beliefs and his feelings
about his gravely ill daughter at events where the attendance averages 15 people becomes
quite compelling.

As Santorum picks at a plate of nachos, presumably sick to the gills of Middle America-mandated
fried fare, the sheer, unrelenting tedium of it all comes across in droves. We might
have seen the highs and lows of Iowa 2012 in teeth-grinding detail just over a year
ago, but Schnack still finds a way to surprise even a Washington audience. As one
campaign strategist says, “We’ve never seen a caucus like this.” And here’s hoping
we never will again.

Playing June 22 (US premiere), 8 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery.