Grassroots is the adaptation of Phil Campbell’s ‘Zioncheck for Presidents: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics.’ Pick out some of the keywords in the title and you’ll have an idea of what Grassroots has in store for you. It tells the ‘true story’ of unemployed music critic Grant Cogswell’s 2001 challenge to long-term incumbent Richard McIver for a seat on Seattle’s City Council. With the help of out-of-work journalist best friend Phil Campbell as his campaign manager, Cogswell runs on the sole issue of Seattle’s mass transit quandary; the answer to which he believes is the aesthetically beautiful, cost-effective and eco-friendly monorail.
Director Stephen Gyllenhaal implores us to, “Laugh. Cry. Vote for the little guy”. That’s our slogan for Grassroots, and from the beginning I’ve had a gut instinct that this story might deeply move other people feeling alienated from democracy by the mega-politics of super PACs, secret deals, and perfectly coiffed candidates. I’m not sure about the crying bit, but I found Gyllenhaal’s political comedy to be a surprisingly effective and humorous spin on Grassroots politics. It is perhaps the perfect time for such a film, even though events of the film are set over ten years ago. It is a feel good film for the little guys, whilst serving to remind the rest of us that Grassroots politics can effectively influence political policy. It can trump big money and political swagger with the support of an electorate which is smart enough to see through the lies (sorry, spin), and get behind idealistic and honest candidates such as Cogswell. It may all be a pipe-dream, a ridiculous notion that such success can be sustained when mega-politics makes the rules, but one of the things I most admired about the film was at its heart was the reminder that life can surprise you, that sometimes the inexplicable can happen, and the little guys can have their democratic voices heard.
Where many comedies fail and Grassroots is successful is its willingness to sacrifice comedy for moments of serious reflection. Saying that, there is a restraint in how Gyllenhaal goes about this. He skilfully manipulates the conversation between Phil and his exasperated girlfriend Emily (Lauren Ambrose) to simultaneously read as her annoyance at him passing up a job at a newspaper to run Grant’s campaign, to her criticism of Grant and Phil’s ignorance of the disservice they are doing the electorate; displacing a responsible politician, for the foul-mouthed and egregious Cogswell.
The obvious weakness of the film is it’s limitation to the mentality of us versus them, and it’s reluctance to explore the story of the campaign with a greater attention to detail, coupled with how easy it seemed for a foul-mouthed and alienating individual to endear himself to the electorate. Despite Gyllenhaal’s honourable intentions to offer a critique of the systematic correlation between mega-politics and the disenchantment of the electorate, he struggles to raise the film to imitate the kind of narratives Sorkin has become associated with on the subject of politics and the media. Gyllenhaal does however manage to craft an effective semi-humorous political comedy, not allowing the melodrama of Campbell’s romance with Emily to occupy too much screen time. Rather he offers another layer to the narrative: the story of adolescent grown-ups trying to make the jump to responsible adulthood in an irrational and impulsive world.
For some it’s angry and unsympathetic protagonist will detract, compounded further by its failure to plough the riches of political drama. I went into this film with certain reservations, and whilst I didn’t cry, I certainly laughed. For the first It appeared that Jason Biggs had finally shook off the idiotic and adolescent persona that has hung off him like a bad smell.