In 2001, music critic and political activist Grant Cogswell ran for a seat on Seattle’s city council that, at the time, was filled by incumbent Richard McIver. Cogswell ran largely on the notion that the city would be improved—socially, environmentally, and economically—by the extension of the city’s monorail system citywide. He failed, ultimately, but only by a hair, and his campaign manager, Phil Campbell, thought the wobbly ascension of Cogswell into this minor political arena was tome-worthy and, in 2005, published Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics, a detailed account of Cogswell’s campaign.
The title of the book refers to Cogswell’s fascination with Marion Zioncheck, a Seattle politician who was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1933 and committed suicide in 1936, following a myriad of public disgraces and, it’s been argued, due to his adversarial relationship to J. Edgar Hoover. It suggests an embrace of madness, a championing of the eccentric above the rank and file, which isn’t of much concern in Grassroots, Stephen Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Campbell’s book. Though, to be honest, it isn’t entirely clear what Gyllenhaal sees in the material apart from some lukewarm raging against the machine.
Cogswell, portrayed here by Joel David Moore, is an obnoxious, insufferable snob who mindlessly barks accusations at foes and those he deems of lesser intellect than him. The risibility and rottenness of such a character is enough to turn off even a friend like Campbell (Jason Biggs), but Gyllenhaal obviously reveres him—and in aggressively disjointed fashion. The film is irrefutably aimless, but it’s peppered with oddities that at once beguile and infuriate, not the least of which being the appearance of Tom Arnold as an eccentric bartender with a useful computer.
The film stops dead to make a macabrely sentimental and specialized gesture about Cogswell’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks, but Gyllenhaal’s inexplicable obsession with McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) being the only African-American politician in the Seattle area is the film’s most egregious fault. Many things can be said about what exactly Grassroots is getting at, but it’s certainly not a story about race, and the three or four scenes where McIver’s race does come up are sculpted for dead-serious provocation. It’s a meaningless endeavor and a cowardly one, seeing as Gyllenhaal doesn’t seem interested in probing why exactly these issues are of any real interest to his characters.
A would-be satire of left-wing mores, Grassroots seems interested in nothing so much as the struggles of Campbell in finding his middle-class self. An obligatory fit of adultery and some mild shenanigans are introduced and remain largely unaddressed by the time Campbell proposes to his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) amid the end of a marginally successful campaign. And for a film about a man in love with Seattle, Gyllenhaal’s camera captures the city with little intimacy or sense of personality, allowing it merely to serve as the vague backdrop to a deeply confused, blindly aggressive political comedy.