This documentary, hosted by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was a trip back in time to the 2000 presidential election. It wasn’t a documentary about the debacle that the election became, with the electoral outcome decided by the Supreme Court. Phillip started filming the documentary six months before the election because he felt ill-informed and he wanted to find out what issues people were concerned with.
The cornerstones of the documentary are the conventions, the Republican one in Philadelphia and the Democratic one in Los Angeles. Phillip mingles with delegates and elected officials inside the conventions and the protestors out on the street. The conventions are sandwiched with interviews and investigations of movements throughout the country that represent issues of the day.
Noam Chomsky talks with Hoffman about the “bewildered herd”. “The role of people in a democracy is to be spectator”, he explains. The point is not to get people to think about others, but only to care about themselves, to focus on superficial things, like consumption. The US, after all, is a consumer culture.
Representative Ford from Tennessee describes government as the biggest business of them all, a business with the people as captive consumers. If you do not vote, you have no voice. And those with money have a bigger vote.
Or Tim Robbins pointing out that people who don’t vote do not do so out of apathy, but as a way to protest. You have two choices and want neither. So why vote? The only difference between Republicans and Democrats is the velocity of their knees hitting the floor when business comes calling. A paraphrase from Ralph Nadar.
Philip interviews the head of a Christian group, Re-generation Ministries, that reprograms homosexuals. His mouth is on the floor (as is mine) as the head of this organization argues that faith-based organizations can do what governmental organizations cannot, that caring for others is a trait that only Christians have, that only came from Christianity. Wow. Oh yeah, and prostitutes, drug addicts, and those in poverty do not need money. They need the internal transformation of the soul, which only a Christian organization, not a government one, can provide. Wow.
Phillip stumbles through an interview with Jesse Jackson, clearly awe struck and tongue-tied. He softballs it, asking if there are differences between Democrats and Republicans. As expected, Jackson responds that the Republicans have an outer layer that looks multicultural but in fact the inner structure is white, male, rich.
Philip visits a gun show and talks with gun enthusiasts who are clearly agitated at the thought of liberals taking away their guns. The solution, of course, is guns.
Phillip talks with people at an organization in Philadelphia that provides help to the homeless, learning how the movement to push people off of welfare into work doesn’t work in that area where there are no jobs. There is nothing to push people off of welfare into, except the street.
While the urban poor are in trouble from the outsourcing of jobs, the rural farmers are disappearing due to factory farms. Philip visits Farm Aid and talks to Willie Nelson as well as black farmers about the situation. If you have to sell high volumes of produce below market rate, which means you never break even, you are basically back to being a sharecropper, one farmer points out. Why does the state of farming matter? As one of the singers of the group Bare Naked Ladies, which played at Farm Aid, states, “If you eat, this concerns you.” Period.
Both Republican and Democratic conventions draw huge numbers of protesters. The protests even start before the Democratic convention does in Los Angeles…and seem more violent and are subjected with more police oppression than the protests at the Republican convention in Philadelphia.
Gingrich actually comes out looking decent when asked by Philip about the protests. Gingrich describes protest as helpful, getting the attention of the media, and increasing the volume of ideas available.
His response is in stark contrast to representative Jim Reese of Oklahoma who describes the protesters as “blooming idiots”. And then comments that it’s not like there’s a police state they need to break up, just as rows of police march past behind him, clearly on the move to engage the protesters. Ooops. Poor timing to insist we don’t live in a police state. (Never mind the implication that protest isn’t necessary unless you live in a police state.)
Philip visits the Ruckus Society boot camp, a place for people to congregate and learn techniques of nonviolent protest. The instructors have been involved in various types of protect movements (social justice, environmental, etc.) and pass on their knowledge. The boot camp is the perfect place for the cross-pollination of ideas.
In addition to the mainstream conventions, Philip visits the Shadow Convention, the convention where issues that need to be discussed but aren’t discussed at the Republican and Democratic conventions actually have center stage. Philip talks to people about the death penalty, which overwhelmingly involves the poor. Nine out of ten people on death row did not have an attorney.
How many of these issues that Philip discussed with others throughout this documentary are still an issue? In some ways, this movie could be about the presidential conventions today…14 years later. As Bill Maher pointed out, lobbying is just another word for bribery. So what should one do? It is too easy to follow the path that Tim Robbins discussed, not voting as a method of protest. But Barney Frank points out that by not voting, you are not relevant to any elected official. Whereas Democrats tend to protest, Republicans vote officials that they don’t like out of office. It is a choice between not voting as a means of protest (the Democratic way) or voting as a means of protest (the Republican way). Sadly, in neither way are you voting for someone and their ideas.