See How They Run (DVD)
The recent gubernatorial recall election in California makes the political documentary See How They Run at once timely and borderline irrelevant. On one hand, there's never been a better time to release a documentary about a colorful California election. Yet the insanity that led the state to elect an action-movie hero as its governor makes the 1999 San Francisco mayoral race pitting silky-smooth black insider Willie Brown against flamboyant gay comedian/write-in candidate Tom Ammiano look only mildly unusual. If Brown vs. Ammiano was a sideshow, Gray Davis vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Common Sense was a full-on, three-ring Barnum & Bailey Circus. Still, as sideshows go, the one depicted in See How They Run is plenty entertaining. Though 13 candidates ran for mayor, the choice, as one commentator bluntly points out in the film, really boiled down to re-electing Mayor Willie Brown or electing anybody but Willie Brown, whose confidence bordered on arrogance. Under Brown, San Francisco became one of the biggest beneficiaries of an Internet boom that made the city prohibitively expensive for working- and middle-class citizens. In perhaps the film's most telling moment, Arianna Huffington attacks Brown on Politically Incorrect for allegedly saying that anyone who makes less than $50,000 a year shouldn't live in San Francisco. Unflustered, Brown calmly insists that the statement is untrue, since San Francisco will always need waiters and waitresses. As election time nears, the race boils down to Brown–such an establishment figure that the city's Republicans throw their weight behind him–versus Ammiano, and machine politics versus spunky grassroots activism. Of course, a city like San Francisco, with its proud history of progressive politics, has a natural affinity for outsiders. But the machine representing the status quo is invariably better funded, and one of the most striking aspects of See How They Run spawns from the city's seemingly ingrained cynicism about politics. Considering that the film ends with Ammiano becoming more pragmatic and moving toward the center, that cynicism seems largely justified.