By Matt Zoller Seitz
I've avoided praising Kristian Fraga's documentary Anytown, USA, about a brutal mayoral race in Bogota, New Jersey, for the same reason I've avoided praising any good movie directed by someone who happens to be my friend—because anything I wrote, no matter how intricately justified, would be read in some quarters as logrolling. But since Anytown is playing on one screen in Los Angeles this week, and will be gone as of Thursday, I'm putting aside my qualms and telling you, flat-out, that if you live anywhere near LA and you're thinking about seeing a movie this weekend, forget every other choice; you owe it to yourself to see this one in a theater with an audience. It's an accomplished and deceptively ambitious movie: a straightforward record of a particular time and place, a frank but affectionate portrait of small-town life, a satire on American hypocrisy, a mostly wry but sometimes ruthless comedy, and—most surprisingly—a cogent look at the tension between the crude iconography and childish hostility that erupt during close contests, and the deep-rooted human desires that make low tactics irresistible.
From its opening sequence—which shows incumbent Republican mayor Steven Lonegan fretting on election night, worrying that one of his two opponents, a Democrat and an independent, will unseat him—Anytown establishes its sneaky m.o., inflating familiar, even cliched images, devices and moods to Macy's-parade-balloon dimensions, and then deflating them with little jabs of truth. The movie then flashes back to eight months earlier and paints an exuberant portrait of Bogota that combines the warmth of family anecdote and the fuck-you wit of a good political cartoon. Fraga's faux-satirical tone makes the town seem like Harper Valley by way of The Simpsons' impulse-driven Springfield. But the images work at cross-purposes; Anytown is photographed (by Jonathan Wolff, who shot my first feature, Home) in glazed, often faintly ethereal textures that recall the early Massapequa sequences in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July; in this fleet-footed prelude, as is the case throughout Anytown, Fraga asks you to hold two contradictory opinions or emotions in your head at the same time—superimposing the town's idealized self-image on top of the roiling, often rancid facts of life during an election year, building the interplay between lies and truth into the very structure of the movie you're watching.
Lonegan, an entrenched political boss who's stayed in power thanks to street smarts, a tough staff and his own blatantly propagandistic newspaper, The Bogotian—which exists mainly to slime the mayor's enemies—figured he was a shoo-in for re-election. But then he made the perpelexing tactical error of slashing the town's school budget by $300,000 and gutting its football program in the process. When the townspeople berate Lonegan at public hearings, they seem to be brandishing invisible torches. Yet few of them dare acknowledge a central hypocrisy exposed in Fraga's scene-setting, man-on-the-street montage: some of the same folks who are furious at Lonegan over the austerity-mandated budget cuts are also demanding lower property taxes. (Message to the mayor: Stiff the schools, but whatever you do, don't stiff the schools.)
Despite the public's compromised ire, Lonegan is such a smug bastard that he jump-starts the audience's inclination to root for the underdog, any underdog. In Bogota, there are two. One is Fred Pesce, a Democratic councilman and longtime Lonegan foe who enters the race even though almost no one can muster any enthusiasm for his candidacy apart from the fact that he's not Lonegan. He's a lump with no vision beyond an image of himself behind the mayor's desk, and a persona so dull that he seems to be running for Chairman of the Bored. Lonegan's other opponent is a wild card: Dave Musikant, former high school football star and well-liked eccentric who's now living with his mother and going blind from a degenerative eye disease. (In one of those you-can-make-this-up coincidences, Lonegan is legally blind himself; insert one-eyed man cliche here.) To prove he's serious about winning, Musikant somehow convinces a top national campaign manager to come on board and devise an anti-Lonegan strategy. (One of the Musikant team's most seemingly sophomoric ideas—hiring a guy dressed as a giant pencil to canvas the town and remind people to write in Musikant's name—turns out to be quite effective.) Personally, Musikant is a ray of sunshine—an indestructibly upbeat fellow who once made an inspirational video titled, "Live Your Dreams Everyday." Unfortunately, he's even more hapless than Pesce.
When Musikant's candidacy gains surprising traction, Fraga deliberately shifts into Rocky mode. But as in the opening section, the invocation of established commercial storytelling techniques is very sophisticated—both heartfelt and self-critical. Your own need to cheer Musikant—and expect, even demand, a decisive victory over Lonegan—is undercut by sobering political facts, from Musikant's lack of organization and cash to the Lonegan team's superior grasp of Machiavellian tactics. Plus, as hissable as Lonegan is, you have to give the man props for understanding that campaigning is different from actually running things—that elections are, in essence, nonviolent, symbolically charged, highly ritualized versions of war, and that in war, you fight dirty, and put off dealing with the consequences until after you've been sworn in. To watch Anytown is to understand the difference between what citizens claim to want and what they crave—between the rosy ideals of politics and the dung-strewn reality. Fraga's tricky construction—indulging pomp and lies in order to scrutinize them—encourages viewers to understand how social conditioning, via both politics and moviegoing, imbues us with an irrational need to view every tight election as a good-vs.-evil melodrama; and how this same makes us ripe targets for fearmongering, disinformation and manipulation.
Thankfully, though, this isn't another facile condemnation of a broken system. The closing section—the town waking up on election day and moving en masse toward the polls, taking every minute seriously—is an inspiring depiction of democracy's goodness (and corrupted, or untapped, potential). Fraga insists there's no such thing as an unimportant election, and—a radical point in demoralized times—no such thing as standing outside of politics. The process affects all citizens, whether they choose to participate or recuse themselves for (often specious) moral or intellectual reasons; so all things considered, it's better to be involved, because you might surprise yourself and make a difference. As one citizen observes in the movie's opening section, "In a little town like this, every vote counts. It's not like voting for the president."
For information about Anytown USA's Los Angeles run August 4-6, click here.