Writer: James Smith
Producer: Jake Shaw
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: World premiere, Nottingham, 30th April 2005
Documentaries are hot right now. The week that Ryan for Congress received its first public screening also saw the UK terrestrial premiere of Super Size Me, one week after the UK terrestrial premiere of Spellbound. In the wake of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, actuality footage on the big screen is more popular than it has ever been since people stopped filming workers leaving factory gates and trains arriving at stations.
This first feature from Jake Shaw, who has been responsible for the featurettes on the DVD releases of several cult films, is an open, honest and wryly amusing look at an election in Ohio in 2002. The incumbent congressman, James Traficant (Democrat) had been found guilty of massive corruption and sentenced to jail, where he was still constitutionally able to contest his old seat as an independent. The Democrats chose as their replacement 29-year-old Tim Ryan, a thoroughly likeable chap but very young and relatively inexperienced. The Republicans put up a frankly scary-looking woman from out of town named Anne Benjamin.
Shaw and his camera followed Ryan and his band of helpers - many of them as fresh to big-stakes politics as the candidate himself, a few of them grizzled old veterans - while also keeping an eye on the Republican camp. Vox pops with supporters of all three candidates pepper the film along with interviews that cover subjects such as the importance of religion in US politics and the introduction in some polling stations of electronic voting systems.
Irrespective of one’s politics, it is impossible not to like Ryan, who comes across as genuinely... well, genuine, and refuses to indulge in negative campaigning, even while the Republicans are urging people to avoid him because as a student he once tried to get in somewhere using his older brother’s ID. It is also very difficult not to dislike the hatchet-faced Benjamin. Ryan’s supporters - and indeed Ryan himself - spend a large part of their campaigning simply standing on street corners (in the cold and the rain - Ohio is not a state renowned for its balmy climate) holding large ‘Ryan for Congress’ signs and waving at passing vehicles. It’s an utterly extraordinary thing to see and, like much of the movie, benefits from being viewed through British eyes. One simply could never imagine any UK politician doing such a thing.
Like many of the current crop of documentary movies, there is a lot of humour here; partly the easy jocularity of the Ryan camp but mostly the battery of eccentrics who pop up in front of Shaw’s camera to offer their honest opinions. And frankly, from a British perspective, the American electoral system just seems bewilderingly amusing. We are given just a glimpse at the 15 pages of candidates and laws that people are expected to vote on, mostly using bizarrely complex hole-punching devices, sometimes using bizarrely complex electronic devices. It would have been nice to see that aspect of the whole process in a bit more detail, contrasting it with the ‘one cross in one box, that’s yer lot’ system in the UK, and possibly speculating about whether it might contribute to the amazingly low turnouts that even well-supported US elections manage.
Though it’s not perfect, Shaw’s documentary (two and a half years in the making, edited down from 40 hours of raw footage) is a snappy, informative picture - as well-paced as it is well-constructed. Obviously we are rooting for Ryan but the film never feels like propaganda - and again that is the benefit of viewing the whole process from across a large ocean. We learn a little about American politics at grass roots level, a little about Northern Ohio (the sort of place that people come from but nobody goes to) and a whole lot about ‘real’ America, a place never shown in any Hollywood movie and rarely mentioned in international news.
Being picky, it’s a little odd that, after explaining about Traficant and his unique situation in the first five minutes, he and his supporters then disappear for more than half an hour, making the contest seem like a two-horse race. Traficant is used as a hook but barely features in the film itself and even a couple of enthusiastic vox pops from his supporters offer no insight into the man, beyond the evident fact that he is a convicted crook. Nor is there any comment on how rare a three-horse race such as this must presumably be in a country so rigidly fixed into a two-party system. It also seems odd that Ryan himself is first introduced to us in a Republican TV commercial listing his heinous teenage ‘fake ID’ occurrence. At that point we don’t know anything about Ryan and it’s not clear what message (or meta-message) we should be deriving from this commercial.
If this is pedantry it’s because I can’t otherwise fault the movie. Shaw proves himself an able interviewer, an observant fly-on-the-wall cameraman and an enthusiastic, diligent narrator, as well as a hugely talented documentarian who really needs to break out of corporate videos and ‘behind-the-scenes’ DVD supplements.
MJS rating: A
Review originally published 1st May 2005