It’s hard to find the words to describe just how good AJ Schnack’s documentary on the 2012 Iowa Caucuses is. After viewing it for the first time, I emailed Schnack to tell him it was fantastic, but even that term doesn’t seem to do this film justice. Despite knowing how the story would end, Caucus, grabbed my attention from the first sound I heard and didn’t let it go until the credits were over.
The 105-minute documentary not only follows Rick Santorum’s 2012 Cinderella story, but it also provides a glimpse of what its like to run for president in Iowa, or better yet, what its like to help decide who wins the First-in-the-Nation caucuses. One wouldn’t necessarily think that watching a documentary of this nature would run you trough a gamut of emotions, but Caucus will make you laugh, cry, and feel just a little bit uncomfortable.
The film begins where the story ends, on caucus night. The opening scene is of a large precinct caucus singing, “God Bless America.” There are no images on the screen for a few seconds, just a black screen with the audio of 400 or so people singing the patriotic hymn. It was almost like listening to myself sing, nervous of what it sounds like to everyone else. Then the video appears, and I can’t help but focus on the heavy-set, bearded man in the front row wearing a Ron Paul t-shirt that’s not long enough to cover his protruding belly.
“Oh no, is this really what this documentary is going to be like?” I asked myself.
The simple answer is yes. There are embarrassing moments with Iowans throughout the film, just like there are embarrassing moments for the presidential candidates themselves. Even the spouses of the candidates are fair game. Well, that’s not entirely the case, but Marcus Bachmann does play a prominent role in a number of scenes. Whether we like it or not, Caucus, gives viewers an inside look into the world of presidential politics in Iowa, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Schnack began rolling film in Iowa at the Iowa State Fair, just days before the Republican Party of Iowa’s Straw Poll in Ames. From the start, it becomes apparent that the filmmaker has a knack for capturing pivotal moments with his camera. From Santorum walking around the fairgrounds blaming the media for his problems in Iowa to Mitt Romney getting into an argument with protestors over whether or not corporations are people, it seems as if every important moment of the 2012 caucus campaigns were caught on tape.
The film is obviously a delight to watch for those who backed Santorum, but every candidate shines at one point in this film. Even though the film begins with Michele Bachmann at the highest point in her presidential campaign and follows her demise, one can’t escape the fact that she genuinely cared about the people she encountered while campaigning in Iowa.
Likewise, the film captures Rick Perry having a conversation with a World War II veteran at the Iowa State Fair. Say what you will about Perry’s performance as a presidential candidate, but the moment he shared with the 87-year old veteran is as genuine as they come.
Herman Cain’s Iowa campaign was a rocky experience to say the least, but the film captures how he was able to bolt to the top of the polls in Iowa. He was a breath of fresh air, had a huge personality, and before I watched the film, I would have never known he had such a good singing voice. We all know that Gingrich powered his surge with a string of outstanding debate performances, but who knew he was such a fan of the Omaha Zoo? The film does an exceptional job of capturing the big moments of the 2012 caucuses, but it excels in showing what Iowa is really like by including a number of small insignificant moments that a casual observer may miss.
Even though the film does not have a lot of material regarding Ron Paul’s campaign, there is a great moment with Ron and Rand Paul where the elder Paul shrugs off a question from an L.A. Times reporter. The reporter inquired about how Republicans seem to be coming around to his way of thinking. Ron Paul passed on the question, but his son Rand didn’t hesitate and took the microphone to make the point that his father has been right on a number of issues for years. There is also a bit of comedy gold as Ron Paul struggles with the sliding door of a mini van.
It’s obvious from the beginning of the film that Santorum is the star of the show. The film documents his struggle to catching on in Iowa, but it also shows the deep connections he was able to build with Iowans throughout his campaign. There is footage of Santorum walking into a Pizza Ranch in December. Santorum asks a campaign worker about the crowd that was assembled. The aide said it was typical, about 15 or so people were in attendance.
Time has a way of making us forget what allowed Santorum to be successful in Iowa. Besides showing Santorum eating at almost every stop, the film shows the faith he had in Iowans and the caucus process. Throughout the documentary, there are clips of Santorum that show just how willing he was to bare his soul to Iowans. His story he told about his daughter Bella at The Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum was raw and unvarnished. When other candidates chose to gloss over their faults and shortcomings, Santorum shared a deeply personal story.
Late in the campaign, Santorum was asked about comments made by Alan Colmes on Fox News about his family’s decision to bring their son Gabriel home to meet the entire family even though Gabriel died shortly after birth. Again, Santorum was unafraid to show emotion or expose the most personal and tragic parts of his life to voters.
As Caucus nears its end, it provides viewers with an inside view of the Des Moines Register’s final Iowa Poll results. It begins with pollster Ann Selzer looking at the results in her office. She notes Santorum’s rapid rise and Paul’s decline in the final two days of the poll. It then shows Selzer presenting the information to Register, and the reactions are classic and genuine.
Political reporter Jennifer Jacobs is amazed by the result, as is columnist Kathie Obradovich. Editor Rick Green however doesn’t appear to be thrilled. A visibly perturbed Green says, “Jesus, could he [Santorum] win this Tuesday Night?” Then Green realized that the artwork they had ready for the front page showing Romney and Paul arm wrestling would need to be changed.
Also captured on film is Santorum’s reaction to the Register’s final poll numbers. Having just walked out of a restroom, Hogan Gidley, the Santorum campaign’s communications director whispers into Santorum’s ear the results, which elicits a three-word response from the Santorum, “It is real.” One would have expected a candidate like Santorum to be excited, but instead, the Register’s poll numbers only confirmed what he had been experiencing in the final weeks of the campaign.
As we all now know, Santorum not only won the Iowa caucuses, but he also went on to be Romney’s main challenger for the Republican nomination. Schnack’s documentary shows us how it all happened, and while doing so, it also showcases what makes the Iowa caucuses great. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could criticize Iowa’s process after getting to see first hand how passionate and engaged Iowans are in the process.
As someone who covers the caucus politics, there are so many little things that go on over the span of the campaign that don’t warrant being included in a news article but do contribute to what Iowa is all about. Schnack’s Caucus does an exceptional job of including those moments. Those moments are important because they show the relationships that are built between the candidate and the voter. They show that most Iowans are not awe-struck by the presidential hopefuls who infiltrate the state, but instead, feel a sense of duty to get to know the candidates.
This film deserves more than two-thumbs up, it deserves to be shown in classrooms all around the country. The national media often describes the Iowa caucuses as a low-turnout quirky contest that is antiquated and not a reliable indicator of a candidate’s true strength. Hogwash! Expecting presidential candidates to interact with voters may be a little old-fashioned, as is counting paper ballots in a precinct, but there is something so authentic about Iowa’s process, and Caucus captures it all on film.
For never having been in Iowa for the presidential caucuses before, Schnack did a masterful job of capturing the real essence of the Iowa caucuses. Do yourself a favor and go watch this in the theatre when it’s in town. You will not regret it.
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