Gary Zimmer (Steve Carrell) is a highly paid and seasoned Democratic strategist who has managed several presidential campaigns. After a string of defeats, he yearns for a candidate who can woo the masses and inspire ordinary people with his idealism. When he watches a video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a retired Marine Colonel and a farmer, give a town hall speech advocating health benefits for undocumented immigrants, Gary jumps on a jet and flies to Deerlaken, a small town in the crucial swing state of Wisconsin.
This community is in trouble. Half of the local businesses have been shuttered after a military base closed down. After some persuasive talk from Gary, Jack decides to run for mayor on one condition: Gary has to stay in Deerlaken and run the campaign.
When Republicans hear about the new energy emanating from their political opponents, they send Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) to run the campaign for the current mayor, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). She’s a tough Republican fixer with a bag of dirty tricks and lots of money. Having competed against Gary before, she is determined to pulverize him and also humiliate him sexually.
The competition between the Democratic and Republican strategists heats up as money pours into Deerlaken. Jack gives a speech to high-rolling donors in New York City, and with their contributions, Gary is able to bring in a group of data crunchers, poll analysts, and media buyers. But near the end of the mayoral race, Jack’s 28-year-old daughter (Mackenzie Davis) reveals the results of an ethical brainstorm that truly sets this race apart from any others.
Writer and director Jon Stewart impressed us during his years as host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel with his ability to be both serious (during interviews with authors) and out-of-the-box (in his comedic monologues when he demonstrated funny and weird ways of looking at things). Here he brings that same mix to question what might happen if the electorate, instead of being manipulated by politicians and their handlers, decided to upend the process, especially when large amounts of money are involved.
Here are a few takeaways from this political movie to reflect upon during the 2020 electoral season.
“Spinning is what we do to disorient people” is how one strategist describes their job. And lying is an assumed part of it. Any lie becomes truth if you say it often enough. How do we change this dynamic?
Gary discovers early on that he doesn’t know how to talk to the citizens of Deerlaken. Is it arrogance, ignorance, or something else that separates national politicians and strategists from the concerns of ordinary citizens?
As Jack tells a group of donors in New York, it’s crazy that he must convince them to give him money so he can get people miles away to vote for him. Is politics local or not? And what is the money really for?
Slogans matter and can be manipulative. Ads in Jack’s campaign are paid for by “Wisconsonites for Religious-based Compassion and Empathy” and “Powerful Progressives for Strength.”
Data from computer searches can tell a lot about an individual’s political preferences, and campaigns can use it to sort the voters. But no matter how many data-crunching consultants and pollsters are brought in to analyze the voters, profiling can be way off. Gary’s people identify a cluster of single women and send them pamphlets about birth control, only to discover their targets are a group of nuns.
Millions of dollars are spent in every election. Ads are used to gain voter recognition of the candidate’s identify as fabricated by public relations experts. Money also funds campaigns to discredit an opponent, often using false or misleading information for character assassination. What could happen if that money went somewhere else?