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A Perfect Candidate

Not rated, 105 min. Directed by R.j. Cutler, David Van Taylor.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 11, 1996

If you're not already cynical enough about the American political system this election year, then A Perfect Candidate is the perfect experience to send you right over the edge. Recounting the nasty 1994 Senate race in Virginia between Republican Oliver North and Democrat Chuck Robb, this documentary reinforces the cliché that the game of politics is a dirty one, one more concerned with selling a candidate than electing the best-qualified individual. That's hardly a novel notion, which is why A Perfect Candidate doesn't wear too well -- it just doesn't reveal much of anything new. That's not to say that the film isn't often perversely entertaining, particularly as a historical document that captures the punch-and-shuffle campaign strategies of North and Robb in an election that held the entire country's attention. Told principally from the point of view of a journalist covering the Senate campaign, the documentary follows each candidate as he stumps the state shamelessly canvassing for votes, using whatever rhetoric necessary to persuade Virginians that he's the one. Politicking in churches and at rifle ranges, North is dogged by his role in the Iran-Contra affair. For him, the gap between the truth and the untruth is as wide as the one between his two front teeth; one minute he admits to lying to Congress, the next minute he denies it. Focusing on character and traditional family values, North is plainly a demagogue, but even his most ardent detractors can't help but recognize how sincere and winning this overgrown Boy Scout is. Aw-shucks wholesomeness, on the other hand, is something that North's opponent can't convey. Dodging questions on the campaign trail about marital infidelity, massages from ex-beauty queens, and parties where cocaine flowed freely, Robb is a master of political doublespeak -- he has the uncanny ability to open his mouth and yet say nothing. Looking stiff and uncomfortable thoughout the film, he is a professional politician who, seemingly, has forgotten why he became an elected official in the first place. Amidst all the sniping in the campaign -- each of the candidates obsessively focuses on attributes he believes the other lacks -- important issues are trivialized in rehearsed soundbites. The most telling moment in A Perfect Candidate comes when, in a rare confessional moment, North political advisor Mark Goodin confides to the camera that his role is to provide “daily entertainment” and uses the blunt metaphor of crushing a rock to describe the art of getting elected. If only the electoral process itself were so direct and honest, there might be reason to respect it, at least begrudgingly. As it is, A Perfect Candidate shows it to be a circus sideshow in the guise of grand opera.
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