Thursday, June 10, 2010

Anytown, U.S.A. (2005)

This documentary about a mayoral election in Bogota (rhymes with "Vigoda"), New Jersey--a town a local police officer describes as a cross between Norman Rockwell and the Bronx--begins with Tip O'Neil's famous pronouncement, "All politics are local." Director Kristian Fraga revitalizes the old bromide by immersing you so deeply into Bogota's teapot-tempest that by the end you'll want to move there just to register to vote.

While the issues seem small and the arguments personal--and they certainly are, sometimes embarrassingly so (extending to two of the candidates’ legal blindness--and it’s not your fault if you notice the irony)--Fraga maintains a wry sense of proportion that neither enshrines nor trivializes the contest; in fact, the film watches the campaigns very carefully, allowing us to draw comparisons to not only our own local elections but the Big Show of national politics.

And Anytown U.S.A. never forgets Tip O'Neil's observation: Throughout the course of the film we are privy to every petty squabble and knock-down-drag-out, and attention is paid to all the candidates, so that our allegiances swing from one to the next as their personalities and aspirations impose themselves on us. By the end, we have a clearer understanding of the kinds of decisions we make when we vote, the almost-whims that can swing us from one candidate to the other--and the deep-seated loyalties that can blind us to the "truth"--and those quotation marks, this documentary teaches us, must never be forgotten, as we involve ourselves in a (democratic) process that is not only local but always personal.

By turns satiric and sentimental, ironic and intimate, Anytown, U.S.A. neither takes itself too seriously nor condescends to its subject. Add it to the short list--including Primary (1960) and The War Room --of great film records of the fickle heart of democracy.

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