Mr. Smith Makes a Movie; Jeff Smith Campaign Is Topic of Documentary
Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review
Do you think grassroots efforts can't make a difference in politics? Some St. Louis folks are looking back nostalgically on the primary race in the 3rd District in 2004 as an example of a grassroots effort that has made a difference in the long run. And it has all been captured on film.
"Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?" is a documentary about the 2004 Democratic primary bid of 29-year-old Jeff Smith, an underdog candidate running against a heavily favored, name-brand politician, Russ Carnahan.
Smith has no campaign dough, no political spin doctor assistants and negligible financial or moral support from his family. What he does have are energy, ideas, idealism and a group of passionate, young supporters who believe they can make a difference.
Webster Groves film producer Frank Popper found inspiration and a name for his work from Frank Capra's classic, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," starring the immortal Jimmy Stewart. And like Stewart's Mr. Smith, the real-life Jeff Smith comes off as a "little guy" looking out for the interests of other little guys.
Popper's film is not a movie drama like Capra's, but an intense political documentary that's already garnering rave reviews. The 82-minute piece won the Audience Award for Feature Film on June 18 at Silver-docs Film Festival in Washington. Critics are suggesting it could be an Oscar contender for Best Documentary.
"These kind of productions are not your grandparents' documentaries anymore," said Popper. "It's not like taking your medicine. And with the new documentaries, you don't have to suspend your disbelief. You are seeing real life unfold right before your eyes."
A lot of the unfolding in Popper's "Mr. Smith" film involves real local lives--folks from Webster Groves, South County and University City who were on Jeff Smith's bandwagon. Also featured are some well-known St. Louis names: Bill McClellan, Jo Mannies, Ray Hartmann, Martin Duggan, Sylvester Brown, Charles Brennan and, of course, now U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.
Although Popper claims to not be much of a political junkie, he said his frustration with the questionable 2000 election and the policies of George W. Bush transformed him into an unhappy ranter at home.
"My son Jack got fed up with me and said: 'Why don't you use your anger and do something positive with it?'" recalled Popper. "He said I ought to make a documentary about politics.
"It wasn't too long after that when I met Jeff Smith, this Washington U. political science instructor, at a book store event," explained Popper. "He was running for Gephardt's seat. After visiting with him for less than a minute, I was impressed with his idealism. I told him I wanted to make a war-room, behind-the-scenes documentary on his campaign."
Opened Here On July 27
Two years after that book store event, Popper and his collaborators, Michael Kime, a lawyer with Sauerwein Blanchard and Kime P.C., and entrepreneur Matt Cohen, enjoyed a July 27 film opening at the Tivoli Theatre in University City. They are negotiating for showings with Landmark Theatres and for future airings on cable television.
"I liked Jeff's character and his message--fiscal conservatism and progressive social policy--but this documentary is not about hero worship," said Popper. "I set out to make a behind-the-scenes look at a campaign, but that's not the movie it turned out to be. Instead, it's about how our political system is broken and how it can be fixed."
Popper has plenty of ideas on how our political system is broken, and he rattles them off:
* A stodgy political establishment that protects its own.
* Community leaders interested in winners, rather than facing issues.
* Superficial news media coverage that avoids tough-to-explain stories. …