When The Campaign was released in 2012, there seemed to be some restoration of order in American politics. Sure, Rick Santorum was convinced that he might actually win the Republican nomination, but when the campaign season ended, a predictable duo – Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan – stood atop the GOP dais, suit jackets off and sleeves rolled up, their million dollar smiles giving light to the darkness. It was a far cry from the Sarah Palin circus that had thrown the political world into tumult four years earlier.
Well, here we are again, caught in that ever-widening intersection of a Venn diagram that is politics and entertainment, and like some fraying red, white, and blue bunting, we can pull out The Campaign in the hopes of adding some Hollywood flair to it all. The principals involved in this production are not novices to the political entertainment sphere. Director Jay Roach helmed HBO’s Recount and Game Change, writer Chris Henchy penned episodes of the 1990s hit Spin City, and stars Will Ferrell famously played a president on SNL while Zach Galifianakis interviewed one in his web comedy, Between Two Ferns. To borrow this season’s buzzword, these guys are kind of establishment, and that hasn’t been a good thing.
The film throws a spotlight on much of what is wrong with today’s political atmosphere. Congressional incumbent Cam Brady (Ferrell), a Democrat from North Carolina, is a shoo-in for the upcoming election despite his sexual indiscretions. The dastardly Koch Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd), hoping to secure a deal with a Chinese company, exploit this and convince feeble family man Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) to run on the Republican ticket. Marty is no match for his bellicose opponent though, so the Motch brothers hire a slippery campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to even things out. In no time, mud, and fists, are flying.
In a normal election year, say 2012, The Campaign would be an amusing companion piece, a gentle ribbing of our dysfunctional system. But it’s 2016, and we’ve entered a political twilight zone, one that necessitates art that dismantles lies, not just mocks them. This film is funny in an extended sketch comedy kind of way, with leads playing to extreme type and cartoonish villains who chomp cigars and get their comeuppance. It pokes fun at Sarah Barracuda and Dick Cheney’s shooting mishap and is at least equal opportunity in its send-ups, demonizing the money, the politicians, the operatives, the media, the electorate – basically everyone in this great democratic process. But it only ever feels familiar, never uncomfortable. There’s not much in here that hasn’t already been revealed by late night comedy or, on occasion, actual reporters.
The time is ripe for a film that doesn’t just cut close but cuts open the cancers of Citizens United and faux patriotism. The Motch brothers sneer and proclaim that in America “when you’ve got the money, nothing is unpredictable,” a truism but not a particularly shocking one. It seems just pointless for Cam to spout “America, Jesus, Freedom” and then gamely admit that he doesn’t know what it means but knows that people love him for saying it. We’ve moved past this point in our national discourse, and this film along with it.
Prod: Jay Roach, Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis
Dir: Jay Roach
Writer: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Katherine LaNasa, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Ackroyd, Brian Cox, Sarah Baker, Karen Maruyama
Time: 85 min
Country: United States