“I was like, ‘this guy is way too young looking, short, with too high a voice to run for Congress.’ Then I talked to him for 10 minutes and I thought, this motherfucker might just do it.”
2006. Unrated. Out on DVD. On-demand on Netflix. Directed by Frank Popper.
When I was a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, I had an awesome TA who taught my American Politics discussion section — he was energetic, articulate, knowledgeable and told great stories. But on the first day of class, when he walked in, standing about 5’3″, looking about 16 with a tie two sizes too big, and then started talking with a slight lisp, I thought, “you have got to be kidding me.” Within five minutes though, Jeff Smith converted me and the rest of the class, and eventually his popularity in our department was unmatched.
In 2004 Jeff decided to run for Congress, adding his name to a crowded field of contenders for the seat left open by the retiring Rep. Dick Gephardt, despite having no money, little support, no name recognition, and going against Russ Carnahan, a member of Missouri’s version of the Kennedys and the son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan and U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan. I knew that if anyone could overcome these odds, and the fact that he doesn’t look or sound like a typical candidate, it would be Jeff.
The 2006 documentary Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? follows Jeff’s campaign from start to finish, following him as he canvasses neighborhoods for votes, speaks in front of small groups in homes and coffee shops, and works out of his first campaign headquarters in what could be best described as a shithole. As his campaign and student volunteer army grows and becomes more effective, we see him wrangling for endorsements, calling donors and voters and dealing with the media.
Obviously, knowing him and seeing many of my classmates, including those from my initial TA section, working for him, gave me a natural interest in the subject material. But this is a story that really transcends that and holds a much more universal appeal. Everyone loves an underdog and a David/Goliath story, and Jeff Smith is about as much of an underdog as you can get. Not only that, but the film gives you a great look at how a campaign works and the realities of politics and political establishments in this country.
The film is often frustrating as Jeff struggles to break through against a far inferior candidate with name appeal, but ultimately it gives you hope. The raw idealism of Jeff and his campaign workers and the effectiveness of grassroots campaigning is enough to convince even a cynic like me that change is truly possible. It is an inspiring, often funny, always enthralling, emotional roller-coaster of a story — a documentary at its best.
The production values are not too high, but Popper does a good job editing and presenting a pretty fair picture of Jeff — we do see him crack a couple of times under pressure — without idolizing him. But mostly, the story here speaks for itself.
Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is a fascinating movie and anyone with an interest in politics should check it out. It’s available on DVD, and if you’re a Netflix subscriber you can watch it for free online. Of all the movies I’ve reviewed thus far, it may not be the best, but it would be my most highly recommended.