Wednesday 10 October 2012

At the LFF: "Grassroots"

Grassroots, cannily timed to emerge in the run-up to another Presidential election, concerns a group of young people trying to oversee a tangible change in the world. In 2001, Phil Campbell, a journalist recently fired from his post at a Seattle weekly, was recruited by his friend Grant Cogswell to oversee the latter's campaign for public office. Cogswell had generally been dismissed as a single-issue candidate, having sued the council for refusing to expand the monorail gifted to the city by the 1962 World's Fair as a vision of the future. His line, however, was that if he could get this one issue resolved, everything else would drop into place behind it: Seattle's richer and poorer districts would at long last be connected, traffic and pollution would be reduced, and the serene beauty of the monorail itself would cause people to start looking up again.

As Stephen Gyllenhaal's film - adapted from Campbell's memoir Zioncheck for President by Justin Rhodes and the director himself - sees it, Cogswell (Joel David Moore) was exactly the kind of righteous, militant leftie movies and sitcoms are all too prone to send up: a longhair who looks uncomfortable in a suit and - as a very skilfully handled sequence of humour and pathos around 9/11 makes clear - doesn't even own a television. On the stump, Cogswell's rhetoric didn't have the polish and sophistication of his political rivals - who'd had years of practising saying nothing with flair - but it contained passion, sincerity, a directness that connected, particularly with the young army of volunteers Campbell (a thoughtful Jason Biggs) set about assembling; Moore pronounces the "l" in "folks", which keeps us on side whenever the campaign, and the film, begins to flag and wobble.

Grassroots risks being casually dismissed as Sorkin-lite, and certainly the commercial and critical success of The Social Network can't have hurt in getting it into production. Yet it's alert to the particular appeal of grassroots politics: that it's easy to get involved with (you just have to show up), a great way of meeting people (and passionate people), a source of adventure (Campbell leads a team of speedfreaks distributing campaign paraphernalia), and a way of finding like-minded souls who believe in the same things you do. Gyllenhaal crafts two stirring sequences: the first in which Cogswell lays out his grand, naive masterplan while touring the Space Needle, the second finding the team retreating to a bar to watch the first poll numbers coming in, each percentage figure a tantalising smidge higher than the last. 

Does the film romanticise politics? Yes, but with less of the screwball cutesiness Sorkin is given to. After rowing with his girlfriend Emily (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose, reminding us what a vital screen presence she is), Campbell drunkenly sleeps with a co-worker; when he returns to Emily's doorstep to beg forgiveness, he finds he's been replaced by a puppy with a "submissive urination problem". (Everyone has their issues.) The film is strong on political nitty-gritty, the hard facts that make or break a campaign. Gyllenhaal and Rhodes do something interesting with the fact that Richard McIver, the incumbent Cogswell and Campbell were trying to unseat, was black, and the city's only black representative at that. Cedric the Entertainer, shrewd and effective in a rare dramatic role, makes McIver a genial sort you might actually consider voting for, particularly if the alternative was a scrawny, petulant kid. It's a low-blow when Cogswell refuses to shake this elder statesman's hand at the conclusion of a radio interview, even if McIver subsequently shrugs the incident off as "politics". "And that makes it right?," wonders Campbell, the next time the campaigns intersect. What we're watching here is a pair of guys - bros, in modern Hollywood parlance - getting turned on to the idea of reclaiming politics from the pros, as a means of doing the right thing; to making a difference, rather than merely affirming the status quo. 

The problem with Campbell's narrative is that it doesn't have an ending - except in the real world, where it belatedly found a continuation of sorts. These are, perhaps, the first stirrings of the Occupy movement that sprang up towards the end of this decade to reclaim those communal areas where our politicians and public figures had begun to fail us: a movement that took these issues, ideas and kinds of campaigns and ran with them, bringing even greater numbers and energy to its task, and its message to a wider audience than Campbell and Cogswell, ensconced in their cosy independent coffeehouse, could ever have envisioned. What this story teaches us is that we citizens have nothing to lose from, say, turning up at city chambers in a polar bear outfit, as Cogswell once mooted: if nothing else, it forces those politicos who've become desperate to prove how much they're still in touch with the electorate to respond to your presence. With our mainstream parties now fussing and blustering to protect a rapidly dwindling set of interests, Gyllenhaal's quietly valuable film instead charts the process of reengagement, the reaching out and growing up, by which some small part of America sought to rebuild itself in the wake of September 2001. Anyone keen to make the world a better place might just go for it.

Grassroots screens at the Vue West End on Friday 12 at 9pm and again on Sun 14 at 3.15pm, then at Rich Mix on Mon 15 at 9pm.

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