It’s impossible to view the alleged straightforwardness of Convention through anything but the ironic, fictionalizing prism of faux-political documentaries like Robert Altman’s found-art masterpiece Tanner ‘88 or Armando Iannucci’s satirical paean to groundling legislative scrapping In the Loop. Essentially a behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, director/producer/editor AJ Schnack elides all evidence of partisan grandeur or historical urgency to instead worm through the municipal and media forces in Denver that pulled the event off, as well as the myriad of local protestors that opportunistically picketed the proceedings. The film seems to appropriate Iannucci’s blistering fatalism for the sake of honest-to-God representation: Reporters scramble for useful copy and berate one another through the teardrop-puckered deadline squeeze, but we’re fully aware that the journalistic melodrama services nothing but ephemeral coverage. And Schnack deftly keeps the rock-star senators and whips at the same enigmatic distance that plagued Altman/Trudeau lovechild Jack Tanner, but rather than using this device to observe the alienating lifestyle of government dignitaries, he softly rallies us toward the understanding that every member of the U.S. citizenry toils for the vision of a somewhat ensconced leadership.
The point may be a facile one, and could even be read as defeatist by those who view campaign pomp and rhetoric as deleterious, but the lack of overt editorializing allows one to appreciate—if not entirely succumb to—the film’s off-kilter curiosities and dirtied-hand aesthetic. The perfunctory, handheld shooting style, executed by a professional team of up-and-coming documentarians, perfectly suits the frazzled, grassroots focus, and Schnack’s editing sensitively dredges the emotional depths of each intercut locale; the antiseptic, nearly Plutonian blues of the convention center, under which the harried Denver Post writers type their hourly releases, are sardonically juxtaposed with the blinding if confusing passion of pavement protestors. It’s both an achievement and a handicap that we relate more intimately to the various backdrops of political action then we do to those caught in the fray; aside from a plucky reporter named Allison Sherry who just barely evades professional crisis while covering Hillary Clinton’s final withdrawal, none of the characters are followed with enough diligence to appear as anything but anonymous players, even as several of them elucidate obtuse agendas (this also renders the film’s last-minute, Animal House-style “Where are they now?” update unintentionally funny).
Then again, it wasn’t totally clear what Jack Tanner and his daughter were protesting when they were briefly incarcerated; anger and/or affection directed toward governing bodies need not have a specific agenda to succeed dramatically, but dramatic success is not necessarily social success. What’s ultimately most irksome about Schnack’s film is that while it organizes the backstage and outside goings-on of DNC ‘08 into a portrait of people strung around a historical periphery, it fails to cogently argue the necessity of observing these underlings at such close range—and yet, as the stately double-time jingoism of the soundtrack not-so-subtly suggests, it asks us to accept the lowly squabbles and efforts recorded as part of the unseen gravity of our electoral traditions. The micro perspective of Convention is intermittently fascinating, but stuck on one end of the Obama/McCain race in the ignorantly blissful pre-Palin era, the film comes across as a needlessly prolix footnote.