American Gadfly


Sharing a laugh before hitting the campaign laptop.

(2022) Documentary (Gravitas) Mike Gravel, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery, Henry Magowan, Whitney Stewart Gravel, Dave Weigel, Jamie Keiles, Marianne Williamson, Rick Santorum, Jon Suhr, Anne Williams, Bettina Weil, Keane Bhatt, Alex Chang, Benjamin Church, Niko House, Katherine Williams. Directed by Skye Wallin

 

The political landscape has changed, as it always, inevitably, does. As technologies change, as fresh blood infuses the electorate, the way in which political discourse is conducted has shifted. We are entering the age, for better or for worse, of the political meme.

As the 2020 presidential election began to take shape, a group of politically-minded high school seniors in upscale Westchester County, New York, felt frustrated by the way the Democratic primaries were shaping out. Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery (a junior) and Henry Magowan felt that the issues important to them and to other young liberals, were not being addressed by the largely centrist group of candidates. Even Bernie Sanders didn’t feel far enough to the left for them. They thought they needed a candidate who would, at least, bring their issues to the conversation.

They found one in Mike Gravel (pronounced Gra-velle, with an emphasis on the second syllable. A former Senator from Alaska, Gravel was known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record to point out the criminal activities being perpetrated by military forces in Vietnam. He was a bit of a maverick, often breaking with party lines, who believed in direct Democracy – that issues should be decided by a popular vote by the electorate, rather than by elected officials. He was also a pacifist, vehemently antiwar.

The trouble was that Gravel was long since retired from politics, living in Monterey, California, and just shy of 90. That didn’t stop the idealistic teens from reaching out to Gravel and asking him to run one last time for President, as he had in 2008 where he had at least made it to the debate stage.

The boys had no illusions of winning the primary. All they wanted to accomplish was to get Gravel on the debate stage this time out, so that their issues might be expressed. Gravel was intrigued by the idea, although he felt that the physical demands of the campaign would be too much for him. However, he agreed to file and allow the students to use his social media accounts to raise the issues and have the conversation that the boys felt was important for the party’s future.

The documentary follows the process as the boys run a uniquely 21st century campaign through Twitter and Facebook. They took on the other candidates for the Democratic primary, often snarky in tone, but the campaign was unusual enough to get some notice from the late night talk shows…well, at least, one of them, anyway.

Although the title of the movie seems to indicate that it’s about Gravel, the former Senator is actually a supporting player. He is generally contacted by phone and rarely consulted about the content of the campaign. The movie is really about the four young men, who know absolutely nothing about running a campaign and yet managing to achieve the goal of getting enough donations to qualify for the second Democratic primary debate – unfortunately, Gravel still didn’t make the stage since more than 20 candidates qualified and the organizers would only permit a maximum of 20 candidates onstage.

The focus on the boys has some interest; as the campaign goes on, some friction rises between the four as they begn to disagree on how the campaign is to be run. Still, this may well be a preview of how campaigns are going to be run in the near-future, and in many ways it’s chilling. When you reduce the conversation to television sound bites, ideas often get essentially lost; reduce it further to accomodate Twitter and the ideas disappear completely. The memes are often snarky and sometimes even vicious; even though the boys decry the bullying tactics of Trump, they often imitate them. Watching this, I thought about the divide between conservatives and liberals in this country; would we further fracture as the far right and far left take on the centrists in their own parties? Can we as a nation ever come back from such a divide?

One admires the chutzpah of the four young men running a campaign on a shoestring. Some will grumble that there isn’t a great deal of inclusiveness in their campaign – no women and only two people of color (both Asians) are involved with their campaign in any meaningful way, but considering that this is essentially four guys from the same school who decided to tilt at a particular windmill that others weren’t likely to follow along with, it’s understandable that they didn’t attract a whole lot of interest from others who might have been (and were) more interested in the campaigns of Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang.

The movie is a bit self-aggrandizing – the boys tend to make claims about the effects of their campaign on the national conversation that I don’t think are warranted – but at the end of the day, four young men of a generation that are pretty much left out of the political equation saw a need to get themselves representation and went for it. There’s nothing that isn’t admirable about that.

REASONS TO SEE: There is something comforting about watching young people trying to change the world.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is somewhat misleading towards the content.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity as well as some adult these.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravel passed away at age 91 on June 26, 2021 of multiple myelomas. He is the oldest candidate for President in the history of the Democratic party.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Brand is Crisis
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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Don’t Look Up