October 12, 2006

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Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (NR)
An idealistic 29-year-old with little more than drive and moxie and a few friends willing to live without sleep decides to run for Dick Gephardt's old House seat in the documentary Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

The Mr. Smith of the title is Jeff Smith, the aforementioned almost-thirtysomething little snapper who wants to go to Congress. Full of progressive ideals and a willingness to leave no potential voter uncalled, Smith bounds energetically into the race, despite comments from his family that it seems like a waste of his time and talent. He'll speak at any senior center and sweet talk any donor, that last part being absolutely critical to his cause. Gephardt's absence in the race is the ultimate power-abhorring vacuum and the race brings out a total of 10 primary challengers, including Smith, another candidate with the last name Smith (Mark) and Russ Carnahan, whose name, we are frequently reminded, is to Missouri what the Kennedy name is in Massachusetts. Carnahan is the son of former senator Jean (his mom) and former governor Mel (his dad). Mel Carnahan is perhaps most famous for being the dead guy who beat John Ashcroft in the senate race. Jean Carnahan took the seat in her husband's place. To say Russ has an advantage is an understatement.

Russ Carnahan has the power of the party organization. And throughout the film, we see how the inertia of that kind of power (which comes with all sorts of money and political endorsements) is a nearly impossible thing to beat. Jeff Smith, as shown to us through this documentary, out-hustles everyone. Is hustle enough, however, when the other guy's mom can make a few phone calls and raise thousands?

The election followed here is the 2004 race, which means that if you are together enough to know who is the U.S. Representative from Missouri's third district, the ending will not come as a surprise to you. The fun is not so much in the suspense of the election's outcome but in watching the process work (or, not work, depending on your stance). Jeff Smith attacks his race with the same kind of sidestep-the-party-and-go-straight-to-the-people maneuver that worked (until it didn't) for Howard Dean in New Hampshire. And to some extent, Smith's quest is successful in that it takes him from obscurity to a serious political contender. He gets out and shakes hands with his potential constitutes and demonstrates how that kind of retail politics can actually fight back against big machine and big money campaigning.

Well, almost.

Jeff Smith's quest is endearing and, for a poli-sci geek, the equivalent of watching the next baseball superstar play in the minor leagues. Looking to get yourself fired up about this dismal midterm? Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is like a shot of espresso that reinvigorates, however briefly, your sense of civic duty. B+

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? will screen on Friday, Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m. at Capitol Center for the Arts (a show sponsored by Red River Theatres). Tickets cost $10; tickets for students and seniors cost $5. The movie is unrated

Amy Diaz