“Bowling for Bush” puns the tagline for this engaging but ultimately unsatisfying journey into the heart of American presidential politics. The film might seem like a fictional companion piece to Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary diatribe, Bowling for Colummbine, but it’s instead a rather poor substitute, lacking much of the effortless logic, laugh-out-loud gallows humour and punchy delivery that made Moore’s film such a rewarding experience.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is our host in this exploration of US democracy, set on the eve of the presidential election of 2000 (i.e. the one that Bush ‘stole’, if you believe Moore, Gore and the Democrat party). Along the way, he interviews activists, actors and academics in an attempt to pin down the elusive nature of government and elections, criss-crossing the country in much the same way as Bowling for Columbine (2002) to canvass points of view and elucidate conflicting reports.
Hoffman may be a brilliant character actor, but he seems woefully out of his depth here. His basso profundo voice is often lost amidst other noise, his questions to the likes of Noam Chomsky and Jesse Jackson stutter and stall, and worst of all, the camera often surreptitiously captures him looking totally bewildered at party rallies and anti-capitalist boot camps. It’s a shame that the film only really livens up when Hoffman interviews Michael Moore – viewers may be amused to see Hoffman frequently wearing Moore’s trademark baseball cap and three-day-old stubble – and when the film-makers cleverly cut between a Democratic convention and a full-blown street riot.
Last Party 2000 is not without merit – impressive talking heads are requisitioned to supply intellectual ballast (beware Tim Robbins’ goatee beard) and the seamless intercutting between documentary, news footage and vox populi lend a refreshingly urgent sheen to a film that threatens to become monotonous for non-West Wing junkies. The usual political clichés are trotted out – gasp at how the Democrats and Republicans aren’t really that different at all – but the film frames these discoveries in such a way that you are often left shaking your head at the strangeness of it all. When Democratic supporters claim that the Republicans ‘stole’ the idea of family values and education from Al Gore, you realise what a messy, futile and dirty place the world of politics is.
Chaiklin and Leitch may ultimately try to cover a few too many bases for a worthwhile conclusion to be drawn, but the final half-hour perfectly captures the sense of electoral turmoil and national schism after the Florida debacle in 2000. (You may remember that Gore won the popular vote by over half a million, but Bush won on a minor technicality – i.e. his brother prevented thousands of registered black voters from reaching the ballot boxes). Skipping from the Supreme Court to Fort Lauderdale to Democrat HQ, these tightly edited sequences really grab the attention and sum up a post-millennial state of the nation riven by suspicion and sour grapes. Roll on the campaign trail of 2004…
Perhaps 89 minutes is just too short a time to sketch out such a monumental political crisis. To touch on gun law, child poverty and the iniquities of world trade is both admirable and necessary, but here it feels like a sideshow to the main event. It may be fun to gasp and growl at the glitziness of US politics, but it is a shame that neither Bush nor Gore could have been roped in, just to provide a few soundbites, or, heaven forbid, profound analysis. This, rather sadly, is left to the likes of Ralph Nader, Rosie O’Donnell and musicians you’ve never heard of. While Moore went straight for the jugular by interviewing Charlton Heston at the end of Columbine, Hoffman is more passive, a bit like one of his gauche loners in his P.T. Anderson films. You feel he has a lot to say, but ends up as bemused as the rest of us.