“Game on,” Rick Santorum declares, as REO Speedwagon’s rock-schlock uplift blares earnestly from the soundtrack. That’s the end of Caucus, a documentary about the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses that frames the political competition in the grand tradition of underdogs overcoming adversity; it’s Hoosiers with tour buses, pro-life rallies, and sweater vests. Santorum ran a scrappy campaign, with one guy and one car crisscrossing the state. Candidate after candidate surged ahead of him before he came roaring back in the last two days of the race, finally beating Mitt Romney by 34 votes. For this, REO Speedwagon signals, viewers are supposed to cheer.
Some of those cheers are no doubt intended to be ironic. On the one hand, Caucus is interested in the horse race. On the other hand, though, it’s dedicated to the painful and fairly humiliating spectacle of candidates dragging themselves across the cornfields from house party to rec center. In one scene, Michele Bachmann and the crowd around her stands silent in front of a television camera, waiting for a network cue, until eventually she asks the poor kid serving as her television prop if he’d like to talk to Wolf Blitzer. In another, a not especially enthusiastic Romney gamely tries to eat a vegetarian corn dog. In a third, Ron Paul struggles haplessly to close a van door.
Not all the candidates are laughable. Bachmann and Romney are consistently repulsive, but Herman Cain is charming, and has an amazing singing voice. Santorum is likable, especially when talking about his family—as in one emotional discussion of how he tried to keep from loving his very ill infant daughter, because he was afraid she would die. The guy even has the decency to look uncomfortable when voters on the trail start spouting bizarre, offensive anti-immigrant paranoia. He comes across as committed and decent enough that it’s hard to begrudge him his moment of triumph at the end, especially since it was fleeting, and didn’t actually lead to him imposing his particular style of intrusive morality on the rest of the country.
The difficulty is that that’s all the documentary really seems to have to say. The underdog won. Some candidates are likable, and some less so. When cameras follow people around all day, every day, they often catch them looking silly and stupid. Who out there doesn’t know all this already? Director AJ Schnack resolutely avoids voiceovers, expert talking heads, or anything that might be considered analysis or a point of view. Presumably this is meant to let the material speak for itself, to show the full, unfiltered strangeness, hilarity, and profundity of the campaign trail. Instead, it feels like 100 minutes of arch nudges, a highlight reel from Politicians Say The Darndest Things. Political junkies may find that appealing, but for more general viewers, the film—like Rick Santorum’s campaign—feels largely irrelevant.