". . . So Goes the Nation" distinguishes itself from the recent glut of mediocre political documentaries by opting for nonpartisanship. The film takes us back to the 2004 presidential election and Ohio, the so-called swing state George W. Bush won by 60,000 votes.
In the process, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo make Ohio a confounding crucible of the American political machine and a microcosm of the country's cultural and socioeconomic fractures.
We spend a few weeks before Election Day following Republican and Democratic camps as they begin respective ground campaigns for Bush/Cheney and Kerry/Edwards. Neither side wants Ohio to become "another Florida," referring to the election fiasco of 2000. But the Democrats think they're in trouble right away. Under Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, in his conflicting role as chief elections officer, controversies abound, including a voter ID requirement and a rigid registration policy that would force some voters to use a provisional ballot.
Meanwhile, staffers working with groups independent of the Kerry campaign worry that the Democrats' ground strategy seems disorganized and at odds with itself.
Filmed later, insiders and campaign organizers of both political persuasions play Monday morning quarterback, ruminating at length about how things went wrong and who did what right.
Republicans point out that the Democratic Party stands for everything and nothing, and is embarrassingly disconnected from rural areas, exurbs, the middle of the country, and average people. To that end, we're shown a busload of Kerry-supporting celebrities arriving in Ohio. Some of the faces aren't that traffic stopping (yes, honey, that is Daphne Zuniga, keep walking). And those that are (Matt Dillon) don't remove their sunglasses.
At one rally, a rabid young Bush supporter eats Fisher Stevens for breakfast, leaving the actor-director to do all he knows to do: turn to the camera for sympathy. That trip illustrates how the Democrats' elitism doesn't travel.
The Republican operation, meanwhile, is cunningly focused to the point of monomania. Seemingly run from behind the wizard's curtain by Karl Rove, Republicans wielded simple, laser-like, Manichaean messages (Bush strong, Kerry weak) and shocked their rivals by appealing to neglected Republicans in Ohio's hinterlands with divisive cultural issues.
As the strategists explain it, Kerry was the perfect foil for Bush. In two intelligently and entertainingly edited sequences, we see how the Bush campaign committed a complete, almost farcical evisceration of Kerry. The "flip-flop" montage is a cruel thing of beauty.
Conveniently, ". . . So Goes the Nation" arrives just before Tuesday's midterm elections. And the problems it captures in Ohio haven't completely disappeared -- voter ID is still required, challengers are still likely to haunt polling stations, and the Democrats still don't seem to have gotten their act entirely together.
But the brilliance of the Republican machine does appear to be in doubt. Or does it? By next week, we'll know whether a sequel is in order.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.