Mild-mannered and thoughtful, Kevin Vigilante is an idealist who believes that actions speak louder than words. He doesn’t believe that everyone who disagrees with him or his party is a traitor who hates America, God, mom, and apple pie. He believes a political campaign can be won in the trenches, with the candidates running on their records, not needing to resort to negative ads and personal politics. In other words, Kevin Vigilante could never be a good Republican nowadays.
He also has a few lessons to learn about how to run a political campaign, and that’s where “Taking on the Kennedys,” a 1996 documentary directed by Joshua Seftel, picks up his story. Seftel met Vigilante in Romania while shooting his first documentary. Vigilante was there to help treat Romanian orphans in desperate need of medical care, and Seftel never forgot about him. Later, in 1996, Seftel learned that Vigilante was running for Congress in Rhode Island, and asked if he could help. The good doctor informed him that he was a Republican, providing the liberal Seftel quite a shock. As he observes in the commentary track, “I always thought he was such a good guy, so I was surprised he was a Republican.” Seftel decided he couldn’t assist on the campaign, but he still thought Vigilante’s experience might make for a good documentary. He was right.
I believe one of the sources of tension which provides this impressive documentary with real energy and depth is the fact that it’s a movie about a Republican candidate directed by a self-described “liberal Democrat.” Of course, the other motivating force behind the movie is the fact that Kevin Vigilante isn’t running against just any Democrat; he’s running against a Kennedy.
Patrick Kennedy, to be precise. That’s Teddy’s son, twenty-six years old when this race was run in 1996. Patrick has a nice smile but a limited track record, and somewhat less polish and natural charm than some of his other family members. What he has in common with them is the name, and that’s an obstacle Kevin Vigilante has to struggle to overcome every day.
At a senior citizen meeting, Vigilante greets an older woman who informs she’s voting for his opponent just because of the name. A Kennedy is a Kennedy, and even if she doesn’t know where he stands on any issues, he’s got her vote. A frustrated Vigilante can barely restrain himself from strangling her, but he smiles and plods on doggedly. The bulk of the film consists of the plucky contender’s battle, doomed from the start, against the single most powerful force in American society, the power of celebrity.
It took me a few days to realize just how good this movie is. It’s got a few strikes against it, the first being that it’s shot on high-8 video. Seftel is credited with being one of the early adapters to video, and it enabled him to function as a one-man crew and to capture some remarkable footage. However, it also looks like… well, like high-8 video. Muddy with a wan, sickly color palette, this looks like little more than home video footage.
Then there’s the subject himself. Kevin Vigilante’s story is an engaging one. A doctor who treats HIV-infected women, he’s a first time candidate, a real-life David trying to slay the Kennedy goliath. However, Vigilante himself is hardly the most dynamic figure in the history of documentary moviemaking. Quiet and methodical, he prefers to sit back and observe, stating his points as directly and simply as possible. Al Gore seem positively magnetic by comparison.
Nonetheless, the movie builds real strength and power as it traces a somewhat tragic arc. Vigilante begins the campaign determined to fight a clean battle, but faced with the relentless negative onslaught of the Kennedy campaign, he eventually throws in the towel and goes on the attack himself. In the most poignant moment in the movie, Kevin takes the mike to fling accusations at Patrick Kennedy ranging from his past drug use to his reluctance to testify during his cousin William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial. Vigilante tries to galvanize his troops and bare his teeth, but his heart’s just not in it. As his wife observes, it’s just not his nature, and it’s hard not to feel a profound sense of loss as he too is swallowed up by the political machine.
From the title, you might expect “Taking on the Kennedys” to paint an unflattering portrait of young Patrick, but this isn’t the case. Seftel isn’t exactly objective (what is that supposed to mean, anyway?) – this is Kevin’s story, after all. But Seftel admires the Kennedy family, and even though he shows a few of Patrick’s more awkward moments, he does his best to play fair. Patrick, like his opponent, is also fighting the good fight. If he’s the “villain” of the piece, it’s only because he has so many more big guns in his arsenal, and we’re rooting for the underdog.
Depending on your point of view, the almost total lack of policy presented in the movie might or might not be considered a drawback. I have no idea what issues Vigilante or Kennedy stood for in this race; it simply isn’t discussed. According to Seftel on the commentary track, that’s because the campaign itself had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with celebrity. A sobering thought, to say the least.
This past year has produced a flurry of political documentaries. Even though “Taking on the Kennedys” was taped in 1996, it’s one of the best of the bunch that has been released either in theaters or on DVD in recent months, a genuine breath of fresh air. It might lack the razzle dazzle and big budget of some of the other famous contenders this year, but it provides a ground level view of the political system that few of us will ever get to experience. If you appreciate a gentler touch from your documentaries, you can’t go wrong with this one.
The DVD is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. As I mentioned in the review, the movie was taped on high-8 video, which was some of the best technology available to low budget filmmakers in 1996. Video enabled Seftel to shoot for less money, and to tape most of the documentary by himself. In exchange for such remarkable freedom, however, he had to settle for a poorer quality picture. Murky and washed out, many scenes look like little more than home video footage, which is pretty much what they are. The look is acceptable for this kind of material, but in a perfect world we’d get something easier on the eyes than these muddy images.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The documentary is almost all location sound, which sounds surprisingly good considering much of it was recorded with a camera microphone. The dialogue is usually clear, though in a few cases, Seftel misses some key lines from secondary characters in scenes. Seftel almost makes very clever use of old-time music, traditional songs about Rhode Island, and these are all well recorded. There are no subtitles or closed captions to support the audio.
Because the main movie runs only 54 minutes, the good folks at Docurama have included more goodies than usual.
The commentary track by Seftel is better than most, featuring his wry sense of humor. The movie benefits greatly from this humor as well as unerring sense of narrative, both of which are on display in the commentary.
The real gem of the lot is a short documentary (13 min) called “The Real Russell,” a movie by Seftel and Michael Lewis (author of the mega-hit sports book “Moneyball.”) The movie is a tongue-in-cheek look at the “real” Russell, Kansas, the good old-fashioned hometown Bob Dole makes endless references to in his campaigns speeches. As the moviemakers discover, the real Russell is somewhat less bucolic than Mr. Dole would have the American voters believe. This documentary is genuinely funny, and every bit as engaging as the main feature.
“The Making of ‘Taking on the Kennedys'” is a short-short (3 1/2 minutes) in which Seftel asks his bemused parents what they remember about the making of the movie.
“Original Campaign Commercials” offers several thirty second ads from each candidate’s campaign, a reminder of just when each of them decided to go negative. Pretty depressing.
The other features are fairly brief, including an “Election Night Outtake” (1 min.), a “Filmmaker Interview” (1 min.), a trailer and the usual Docurama Catalog.
I’ve already written enough. I was taken by surprise by this seemingly modest offering, and would rate it right alongside the very best political documentaries of the past decade. It was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s Top Ten television programs in 1996, and it’s easy to understand why. Watch this movie. You won’t regret it.