One of 15 films shortlisted for a 2006 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore? is currently playing in limited engagements across the country. But starting in late February, this funny, fast-paced and engaging record of contemporary politics in the United States will be available on DVD from its Web site (www.mrsmithmovie.com). Here’s hoping it finds the wider audience it deserves.
First-time director Frank Popper opens the film with a rapidfire series of cuts that establish the disadvantages of underdog-cum-wunderkind Jeff Smith as he makes an improbable bid for the open House seat in Missouri’s 3rd Congressional District in 2004. A St. Louis native, Smith neither looks nor sounds like a politician, and he’s not. He’s an adjunct professor of political science with no electoral experience, who constantly fidgets, compulsively petting his face with his hands when stressed, and whose pants are too long. Only 29 years old, he may seem young – but his staffers are even younger. As Artie Harris, Smith’s 25-year-old communications director, describes him, “He’s … short, looks like he’s 12 and, you know, sounds like he’s castrated.”
Politicized through his work on education reform in economically depressed and mostly black north St. Louis, Smith was one of nine Democrats vying for the congressional seat vacated by Dick Gephardt in 2004. Topping that list was heir-apparent Russ Carnahan, whose mother, father and grandfather were key political players at the state and national levels. Despite his lack of charisma and horrid attendance record as a member of the Missouri state legislature, Carnahan was considered all but a shoo-in because he could afford the political experts and D.C.-based consulting firms considered necessary for a modern campaign. Carnahan had a name, and that name meant money.
Popper does a terrific job of contrasting the advantages of the Carnahan political dynasty with Smith’s modest, middle-class family. While Carnahan’s mother, a former U.S. senator, raises money from national contributors for his campaign, Phyllis Smith stocks her son’s campaign headquarters’ fridge with peaches and strawberries and refuses to call her friends to ask for money. “I’m not Jean Carnahan,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.
Many of Smith’s family and friends express an intense distaste for modern politics. Smith’s 96-year-old grandmother thinks that “someone with a mind like he has shouldn’t waste it on politics.” His brother calls political contributions as “a waste of money that kind of makes me sick.”
In spite of his family’s objections, viewers quickly come to understand that Smith is naively passionate about running a clean and constructive campaign with a focus on bringing the St. Louis community back to politics. When discussing campaign strategy, stout, freckled 22-year-old neighborhood organizer Matt Henley claims that “all the other campaigns were money, money, money and ads, ads, ads, but Jeff was determined to get out there and meet people.” In the year leading up to the primary, Smith personally knocked on almost every door in the district.
St. Louisans, for their part, rallied around Smith. His earnest sense of justice and desire for equality is contagious, and it’s interesting to see how the community’s perspective changes. During the first part of Smith’s campaign, the citizens he meets refer to politicians as “them” and “those people.” One elderly constituent, after Smith asks if she wants to know anything about his campaign, tells him, “Nobody’s worth a shit.” As Election Day approaches, however, Smith increasingly becomes a local celebrity. “It’s him, I told you it’s him,” gushes a teenager to his coworkers when Smith stops in to get a sandwich.
Through a delicate balance of studio-based interviews and footage taken directly from the campaign trail, Popper conveys both the weariness of citizens who feel forgotten by the political process and the naïve idealism of those who pin their hopes on Smith. For both the tired and the hopeful, the Smith campaign becomes a symbol that hearkens back to “the way the system used to work,” in the words of David Drebes, founder of the Arch City Chronicle, a free St. Louis newspaper focused on politics and civic issues.
In the final month of the campaign, dilapidated, run-down St. Louis comes alive. Smith wins over political analysts, journalists, students and teachers, ultimately accumulating more money than the Carnahan campaign – and more volunteers as well. On Election Day, Smith and his staff decide to get the vote out (and the media as well) by playing a game of basketball in the street. Smith, in a button-down shirt and tie, plays with young black men wearing oversized t‑shirts and slouching jeans. They dribble past boarded-up houses with overgrown lawns while campaign staffers urge citizens to vote via megaphone. The scene sums up the spirit of the campaign perfectly: No matter who you are, or where you live, anyone can play the game.
When Smith ultimately loses by less than 2,000 votes, the shock is overwhelming. In a campaign that seemed so just and right and good, what went wrong?
Unfortunately, we don’t really get to find out. Popper interviews a number of St. Louis journalists and political science buffs, but none of them provide a definitive answer. While Can Mr. Smith captures the energy and ideals driving the grassroots revolution, it doesn’t address the possibly insurmountable and assuredly unavoidable conclusion: that simply working at a local level isn’t always enough.
That doesn’t mean that grassroots strategies are futile. Though the documentary closes with Smith’s loss, there’s a happier ending to this story. Two years later, Smith ran for Missouri State Legislature and won. So while it may be impossible for Mr. Smith to get to Washington these days, he can still shake things up in the statehouse.