‘The Campaign’ is funny, but probably shoots at the wrong targetAugust 17th, 2012 by Steven Gardner
In July I floated an idea by a movie critic friend to screen the movie “The Campaign” in front of an audience, then have a panel discussion about the issues raised in the film. My friend would critique the movie as a movie. We’d have someone else, say a politician with nothing to lose, sit in on the panel as well. It became clear right away that we didn’t have enough time or real interest to set up such an event. Plus, what little feelers I put out generated little response. In the end I’m glad we didn’t do it. I’m not sure “The Campaign” offers something that would lend itself to a good political conversation anyway.
That isn’t to say I didn’t like it. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s funny, and it does, I suppose, draw someone to consider the money in politics question. The challenge I see is that a movie like this one, primarily written to generate laughs, has a tough time tackling the bigger consequences of the problem it addresses. Sure, money in campaigns can make people do bad things. The bigger issue is the behavior money in politics generates after the election. That part is barely discussed in the movie. It is the motive for the money, but it gets short shrift.
In the story Cam Brady (played by Will Ferrell) is an incumbent congressman in North Carolina on his way to easy and unopposed re-election until he commits a major moral blunder that becomes public. The Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) pick another local, Marty Huggins, (Zach Galifianakis) to run against Brady. What the two candidates do to win is hilarious, if you don’t mind over-the-top portrayals of real life. The candidates go way beyond what you’d see in a congressional campaign, which is what you expect in a farce. You’re not going to see Derek Kilmer and Bill Driscoll doing what Brady and Huggins do to each other, not overtly anyway. In the entire movie there might be one person who isn’t a caricature.
By the way, and not that I’m a regular movie critic, the movie very much deserves its “R” rating. It is raunchy. And it probably offers the most exact portrayal of “partial nudity” I’ve ever seen in a movie. You’ve been warned.
Apparently the Koch brothers were offended by the parody of them offered by the movie’s Motch brothers. They might want to lighten up on the offense they take. In the movie you have conspiratorial brothers orchestrating politics with their money to better their financial positions, a member of Congress who is essentially an empty-headed party boy, a gullible electorate that responds enthusiastically and dramatically to any wild accusation offered by the candidates, bimbos and southern racists. Everyone in the country, essentially, is parodied. It’s a Will Ferrell movie, for Heaven’s sake.
What did surprise me was that the movie wasn’t more liberal, given Ferrell’s involvement. The candidates themselves don’t reveal any real views that are consistent with anything out there today, other than the willingness to be bought, to turn meaningless issues into full-blown controversies and to create sound bites they think will sell well. The fact that the Koch brothers seem to be the most recognizably parodied figures and that money in politics is presented as a problem in the movie does make it lean left, but neither candidate comes off looking better than the other. And I can’t recall a single serious issue the candidates addressed.
For far more serious treatment where money can corrupt, The Sunlight Foundation offers a starting point in its question, What do rich political donors get for their contributions? The post references work by Martin Gilens, who wrote the book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.
It’s easy to get muddied by all the conclusions Gilens offers in the non-book-length columns in which he makes his case. And in those he doesn’t provide data, leaving that for the book. (Those columns are linked in the Sunlight Foundation article.)
Some interesting conclusions exist outside the money question. Congress cares more about what you think, no matter your income, around elections and when the chambers are pretty evenly divided. If a party controls the legislative and executive branch, its members are way less likely to care what you say.
The money question goes the way you’d think in one way. The more money you have the more likely you are to influence your elected representative. Some of that has to do with people with more money participating more in politics, but it’s not a straight correlation.
The closer correlation is if you are poor or middle class, you have very little sway with politicians, unless those scenarios described earlier (gridlock and election time) are in place. If you are rich, especially very rich, politicians are way, way more likely to adopt policy you favor no matter the circumstances.
What I really wish is that Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche would come back to life and portray the Duke brothers trying to buy off sitting members of Congress. Those guys knew how to portray scheming rich brothers.