With their innate conflicts and built-in suspense leading up to dramatic, decisive climaxes, elections are perfect sources for engaging films like Taking On The Kennedys and Last Man Standing, two briskly entertaining new political documentaries about elections in singularbut otherwise wildly divergentregions. Taking On The Kennedys takes place in Rhode Island, where it follows the doomed-but-valiant congressional campaign of a hard-working Republican doctor with the improbable B-movie name Dr. Kevin Vigilante. His opponent: Patrick Kennedy, the then-26-year-old son of Ted Kennedy. The race begins with lofty rhetoric about keeping the debate clean and issue-centered, but before long, mud gets flung in all directions. Vigilante and the Kennedy bashersmost notably a sharp-tongued, iconoclastic liberal radio host who baits the callow young Kennedy by playing taunting songs mocking his youth and lack of intelligenceconvincingly portray Kennedy as a spoiled, inexperienced brat trading on his family name.
The legendary Kennedy charm and rhetorical prowess seem to have skipped a generation with Patrick, a scrawny, sickly kid and an often fumbling politician who, in one uncomfortably riveting debate scene, makes a strained attempt at humor that goes over about as well as dirty limericks at a funeral. Like many campaigns, the film focuses less on substantive issues than on the surreal pageantry of campaigning, the way it pushes personality, character, and charisma to the fore at the expense of nearly everything else. Director Joshua Seftel saturates his film with New England atmosphere, scoring a lot of telling footage that comments sharply and sadly on the electoral system, but Kennedys looks terrible, and its winning satire is deflated by dull, flat-footed narration. As is seldom the case in politics, however, the film's substance trumps its style, or lack thereof.
Moving from Kennedy's New England to Bush Country in Texas, Last Man Standing wittily examines the state-legislature race between cherubic 24-year-old Democrat Patrick Rose and 31-year-old Republican incumbent Rick Green. (That's green "like money," as he's fond of saying, although considering his predilection for financial scandals, he should probably retire that witticism.) A grinning rattlesnake of a crooked politician, Green refers to himself as a "right-wing nut" out of brutal candor more than self-deprecation: He sees the looming specter of socialism in anything short of free-market absolutism, and frowns on piddling concerns like the separation of church and state. Factor in a raft of scandals, a prominent place on Texas Monthly's list of the 10 worst legislators, and an ill-advised appearance in an infomercial for nutritional supplements, and Green's political career should be dead in the water. But he's such a mesmerizing, oily politician that he can seemingly weasel his way out of any jam. Green is such a compelling figure that Last Man Standing suffers whenever he's offscreen. But opening up the film lets the filmmakers explore how the shifting nature of Texas politics reflects a larger national shift rightward. In sharp contrast to Kennedys, Paul Stekler's movie looks great and features engaging narration, while also packing a strong regional flavor and tart-tongued commentary from prominent political figures like Karl Rove and Molly Ivins. It's hard to say which aspect of Last Man Standing is ultimately scarier: that a Bible-quoting demagogue as extreme and corrupt as Green qualifies as a legitimate candidate, or that his unabashed far-right zealotry could well represent the future of the Republican Party.