Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stephen Gyllenhaal's GRASSROOTS is the political film for the Millennium. And, yes...

...TrustMovies realizes that the Millennium took place over a de-cade ago. Interestingly, GRASSROOTS takes place over a decade ago, too -- during the 2001 Seattle City Council campaign, soon after a certain Supreme Court decision gutted democracy by appointing a President and his regime; before the further results of 9/11, as that regime took a country hostage by using fear and lies, along with the willingness of almost all its elected officials to follow that fear and those lies, with the populace, sheep-like, right behind; and before Citizens United, when politics seemed merely screwy, phony and, yes, bought. But not bought so thoroughly and completely that all hope be lost.

Instead, this new film co-written (with Justin Rhodes, from the book by Phil Campbell) and directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal (shown at right) is simply filled with hope -- alternately crazy, nonsensical, alluring and pointless as it may be. To get it over with quickly and up front, Grassroots is not simply the best film I've seen all year, it is certainly among the best American political movies ever made: smart and honest about our politics, the political process and us mostly dumb and easily-led voters, while remaining humane to all concerned -- its characters and its audience. (Don't worry, readers: I am not going back on my word. Kumaré remains the best documentary I have seen this year.)

Beginning with one of our heroes -- hell, everyone in the movie is a kind of hero -- Phil (played by Jason Biggs, above, and upside down) getting fired, perhaps legitimately, from his writing job at Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger, and then being besieged by his best friend Grant (in a fairer world, this would be a star-making performance from Joel David Moore, below) to act as his campaign manager in Grant's run for City Council, the movie looks at so many points along the way of this "run for office" that you will emerge from the film better educated, duly chastened and feeling that you have witnessed -- believably -- people, politics and the world at work in a manner that finally allows you to see.

How to put this nicely: Grant, really, is not quite all there. A nerd at best, he's got a one-track campaign -- increase the expanse and routes of the fabled Seattle monorail -- and he is anything but a good public speaker. And yet. When properly inspired, as he sometimes is, he can rally the masses!

Grant's opponent, the entrenched incumbent, Richard McIver, is also the city's only black council person (a simply wonderful, layered and genuine performance from Cedric the Entertainerabove, who is as good here as I have ever seen him). Not a bad egg, McIver, though he promised to, has done nothing to expand the monorail, and so Grant wants him out.

From there we meet the group pushing for the monorail, and its leader (a smart, decent and very pretty Cobie Smulders), along with a spectrum of folk who get involved in the campaign as workers, helpers and advisors -- from the reporter who sniffs out a story here (Christopher McDonald, below) to local bartender/owner (Tom Arnold) and cafe waitress/owner (Emily Bergl, above) to campaign manager Phil's increasingly alienated girlfriend (Six Feet Under's lovely, spirited Lauren Ambrose, two photos below), the movie's characters, no matter how briefly they are seen (and I'd have liked to have seen more of Mr. Arnold) all come to intelligent, often very funny, life.

Mr. Gyllenhaal's contributions are probably many, but what I loved most is how he is able to build this story so well from initially something silly, almost a joke, into something real that takes on genuine importance, even while continuing to seem faintly ridiculous. Even as we're warming to the prospect of Grant's winning the election, we're at the same time thinking, "Wait a minute: What might happen after he wins?" Gyllenhaal and his wonderful cast keep us forever off-balance, liking one character then growing angry at him/her and back again, never quite sure whom to root for -- until we realize, of course, that we're rooting for them all. And for the city of Seattle, which has never seemed (on film) more charming, lovely, and real. After seeing Grassroots, I want to live there.

How the film handles its groundlings, the campaign workers who make things happen but then get a little overwrought in some of their activities, is especially telling. As is its sudden look at 9/11, which occurs midway along. After all I've seen on the subject and witnessed first-hand (I was standing in the middle of 6th Avenue by the IFC Center when the first tower fell), it was the scene in Grassroots that seemed most relevatory, finally bringing things home to me in a way I had not been able to process until now. Perhaps it was seeing the reaction of another American city, 3,000 miles away, that finally got to me.

While I would have liked to have seen more about McIver, and why he is not supporting the Monorail extension (Who bought him off? What's this other less-good public transportation project he's supporting instead?), this is probably beside the point. All our politicians are bought by the campaign contributions that they accept. Until we have true public funding -- and nothing but -- of all elected officials, there is no hope of change because these officials serve only the corporations and the wealthy that elect our public servants and consequently control everything. Think about it: How incredibly much money is spent every two years on political elections that simply keep the same power structure -- Republican or Democrat, it matters little -- in place?

There will never be any real end to the venality and control of Wall Street and the Banks, for instance, because of the huge contributions they make to both parties and our highest elected officials. But change the funding process totally, and you change the ball game by leveling the playing field. And yet almost none of our congress and certainly not our President will even address this situation. (The Supreme Court does, though -- via Citizens United.) See one of the most important documentaries in recent years -- The Best Congress Money Can Buy? -- for a closer look at how and why Congress refuses to address this issue -- the only issue, I believe, that truly matters -- because it actually controls all the other issues.

Finally, the film does not hand us any prescription for how to make our country "work." Instead, it demonstrates how it is working, barely. (And this was a decade ago.) You'll sit there in your seat as the end credits roll (telling us where some of these character are now), feeling a host of conflicting emotions and ideas, and mostly sad at the realization, once again, how nearly impossible it is to achieve progress. And yet this film is not a downer. It's simply too good for that. After all the multi-million-dollar, star-struck extravaganzas that Hollywood turns out regularly, how wonderful to see an intelligent, entertaining, even suspenseful little movie with a small budget that gets almost everything right, knows what it is up to, and cares -- about so much that is important to the world we live in.

Grassroots, from Samuel Goldwyn Films, opens in New York City this Friday, July 13, at the Village East Cinema. Though it has played some other cities recently (click here for past screenings), it ought to be opening everywhere. Let's hope.

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