It must be hard to satirize modern politics since so much of it is already a joke. We’ve got politicians who say things like, “the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.” We’ve got others who make baseless accusations then refuse to apologize. Mitt Romney is a power-hungry zealot who has abandoned any sort of conviction so he can appease his idea of Real America, instead of an actual constituency. In the fray of this insanity, a comedy like The Campaign comes along and actually manages to be provocative. It successfully skewers politics as entertainment, not any particular ideology.
I assumed that the script by Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy would make no direct mention of a political party, but I was wrong. Democratic Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is running unopposed in the 14th district of North Carolina, and due to a wrongly placed inappropriate phone call, his popularity is still in the toilet. The billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) see this as an opportunity to introduce Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) as their sock puppet candidate. Huggins is an effete dandy whose lisp and penchant for pugs render him an unlikely victory. So the Motch brothers hire Tim Wattley* (Dylan McDermott), a highly cynical political operative, to revamp Huggins’ personal life. Unsurprisingly, the shameless pandering works.
Ferrell and longtime collaborator Adam McKay serve as producers on The Campaign, and they make their mark with profane, semi-improvised non-sequiturs. In an early scene, Huggins instructs his wife and two children to confess any sins before further media scrutiny. The confessions – which range from blasphemous to scatological – are an indicative of what’s to come. Neither candidate is especially likable at first, yet the script has a sneaky way of developing sympathy for them. Once political race overpowers their personal lives, Brady and Huggins experience genuine regret. Yes, the candidates start as caricatures, but the necessary choice is to humanize them before it’s too late.
All the political events turn into a massive game of one-upmanship. Huggins tries to trash-talk his opponent, so Brady talks back and forces Huggins to grab his balls. Pretty soon Brady whips himself into a political frenzy, abusing his sane campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis, in perfect straight man mode) before running a campaign ad that abandons any sense of tact of decency.
Director Jay Roach is no stranger to modern political comedy (he directed Recount and Game Change for HBO), so he knows where to push, and by how much. There is no way candidates would try what these guys attempt, yet our political culture has created a regrettable race to the bottom. Galifianakis and Ferrell are effortlessly funny, and they stop short of going completely bonkers so that the world of The Campaign may somewhat resemble ours. Their actions will not happen in the 2012 election campaigns. Their thought processes, however, assuredly will.
The Motch brothers are the de-facto villains of The Campaign, and they’re shamelessly obvious stand-ins for the Koch brothers, who back Tea Party candidates. In a silly PR move, one of the Koch brothers mocks Galifianakis and his contributions to comedy. I can understand why Koch would take the movie personally, although he doesn’t quite get the point. Roach and his writers are making their point about Big Money, not the Koch brothers in particular. It’s more of a plot decision; crotchety old men are better villains than the mysterious owners of a Super PAC. The Campaign places no precise blame and instead comments on a culture run amok. The best part about it – and what makes it cut so deep – is how we are just as guilty as they are.