There's nothing more difficult than making a movie about a contest when the outcome is already known. There's no real suspense the audience already knows how it's going to turn out.
So the journey is the thing. And in "A Perfect Candidate," it's quite a revealing, amusing and ultimately dispiriting trip.
Another film by R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor, who also made the Oscar-nominated, frequently hilarious presidential campaign documentary "The War Room," "A Perfect Candidate" examines the 1994 Virginia Senate race between Oliver North and Sen. Charles Robb. And while this one does have some amusing set-pieces, the result is far more chilling.
For the Democrats, there was Robb, the incumbent, a former Virginia governor bent on riding out a wave of a scandal that accused the family-values candidate of having an affair with a high-profile model and condoning illegal drug use at social gatherings.
And on the Republican ticket was North, the Marine lieutenant colonel who was the central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, having run covert operations out of the White House, but who had reinvented himself seven years later and managed to get this nomination.
Somehow, Cutler and Van Taylor managed to ingratiate themselves to all the major players here, and their approach, as with "The War Room," is to simply sit back and observe with their camera, allowing the editing (including television news reports, which help with exposition and continuity) to dictate the flow and gradually develop major characters.
Chief among these characters is North's campaign strategist Mark Goodin, whose observations range from witty to simply vulgar and from dark and cynical to realistic. When Robb ultimately wins, after what North's people consider a "dirty" campaign, Goodin mutters, "The negative stuff sticks and it works I should never ever have forgotten that."
On the campaign trail, neither of the candidates comes off particularly well, both haunted by past problems and rocked by controversy. But Robb looks particularly bad, inarticulate and evasive, repeatedly insisting that he has never told a lie, all the while avoiding any serious comment on the issues.
Both have the charisma to work a crowd into a frenzy, given the right circumstances, and the film tries to balance the positive with the negative and is never an attack on North or Robb. But it also doesn't shy away from letting them dig holes for themselves, which shows up most frequently as Washington Post reporter Don Baker doggedly asks pointed questions and insists on answers. (Which, of course, he seldom receives.)
But in the end, it is Goodin, in an uncharacteristically reflective moment, who sums up what the film has to say, offering a disturbing message about the American political system:
"We are obsessed with getting people elected, and we are obsessed with the show. So we provide daily entertainment. What we are not providing is serious solutions to what's going on in the country. Not us, not Chuck, not Clinton, not Bush not anybody."
"A Perfect Candidate" is not rated but would probably get an R for some language.