A Perfect Candidate (R.J. Cutler & David Van Taylor)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

The title of this movie confused me, until I saw it. I knew that the documentary followed Oliver North's ultimately unsuccessful bid for Chuck Robb's seat in the Senate in 1994, and I also knew that one of the film's two directors had produced The War Room, a very sympathetic look at the Clinton campaign of '92. Was it intended ironically, as a smirking reference to North's dewy-eyed "sincerity"? A reel or so into A Perfect Candidate, I understood: it was what voters in Virginia in 1994 were not remotely going to find. (One person interviewed accurately characterized the choice as "Which disease do you want? How do you wanna be sick?") Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at North and his entourage (like The War Room, it predictably spends less time with the candidate than with his strategists), the film is more effective as a depressing and disheartening portrayal of the depths to which contemporary politics, and politicians, have sunk. The James Carville figure here is North's main mover-and-shaker, Mark Goodin, who is a bit less flamboyant than the Ragin' Cajun, but ultimately more interesting; the best scene in the film is the one in which he momentarily drops his defenses, candidly and bitterly assessing the merits of his function in society. (The movie's other focus, liberal Washington Post reporter Don Baker, is, unfortunately, exceedingly dull, and the time spent in his company is time wasted.) The first half of A Perfect Candidate, which relies rather too heavily on television broadcasts, is slow going, but as the campaign progresses, Goodin becomes more and more relaxed in front of the camera, and the viewer becomes more and more distressed at the prospect of September. At least, I did.