The first few moments of "Caucus," a new documentary from filmmaker A.J. Schnack, make clear it is not only a film about the politicians who took part in the 2012 Iowa caucus. It is also very much about the ordinary Americans who took a few moments to try and make sense of the cacophonous spectacle passing through, as they went on living their everyday lives.
The opening frames: fathers hold their daughters as they careen down a slide at the Iowa State Fair on potato sacks. Mothers push strollers past the famous butter cow, a 5-by-8-foot sculpture made for the fair every year out of so much butter that it would "take an average person two lifetimes to consume" all of it, as the fair describes it. Everything seems to be some shade of deep yellow, the hue of the state's most abundant crop: corn. This is Iowa. And these are the people who get first shot at picking a president every four years.
"Caucus," which was filmed over the course of nearly a year leading up to the January 2012 contest, is a remarkably fair film, to both the voter and also the candidates, without veering into phoniness or hagiography. Schnack and fellow filmmaker Nathan Truesdell show us voters who are decent and noble, but also sometimes angry and confused.
There is a romance to this film. It is a love note to the notion that regular people can still stand up and govern themselves, that they have the gumption to get off their couches and away from their television sets and computers, look a candidate in the eye, ask them a question, and take the measure of the man or woman. It is a tribute to the fact that the pockets of the country where the men and women raising the young children who sit in the grass as they wait for a candidate to show up -- the people who do much of the real work that makes this country strong -- still get to decide some things. That is the magic of Iowa.
"This race has been about two candidates, the problem is, it hasn't been the same two candidates for any two months in a row," former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) tells a group of Iowans. "Well, I'll tell you the candidates it's between: who you say." A man in the room responds, "Amen."
Schnack, 45, was born and raised in Edwardsville, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He made the film hoping to show Iowans "as more complicated than the stereotype of alien or hicks or even the perception that Iowa is dominated completely by social and religious conservatives."
"I found them to be dedicated, asking tough, smart questions, working hard for the good of their state/country," Schnack said in an e-mail. "Since I grew up in the Midwest, I'm acutely aware that folks in the middle often feel unfairly overlooked by the coasts."
Schnack and Truesdell take you inside the small community centers, coffee houses and Pizza Ranches where these people spent hours on end with the Republican field in the months leading up to the January 2012 caucus. Taken as a whole, the candidates did not measure up well in comparison to the voters they were courting. The topsy-turvy nature of the race was evidence enough that none of the Republicans in Iowa during the summer and fall of 2011 satisfied the electorate.
But it made for quite a spectacle, and Schnack and Truesdell captured some amazing moments on film that humanize the candidates, and the voters.
"For everyone we wanted to show them at their best: what was it that would draw Iowans to vote for this person? And if we did that we could then show you the moments why they lost," Schnack told HuffPost over the phone.
Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) are the two candidates who get the most screen time. Bachmann is a loud, relentless pol who took Iowa by storm in August 2011 when she won the Ames straw poll. But "Caucus" shows how her momentum is eventually her undoing, as Schnack describes, "her just being rushed all the time, showing up late, rushing in, rushing out and having the bus and the Elvis Presley music."
"Had she just been able to just hop in a car maybe she wouldn't have been late to the next thing, but she had to get on this huge bus," he said.
The filmmakers are there the day after the straw poll, in Bachmann's hometown of Waterloo, when it all began to fall apart for her. Texas Gov. Rick Perry made his first appearance as a candidate in the state that day, at the Black Hawk County dinner, and wowed the crowd with his speech and his folksy manner. Bachmann, meanwhile, hid out on her bus and made the audience wait several minutes after her name was announced from the stage. She spoke and bolted. Schnack's camera captures it all.
As the campaign goes on, Bachmann's husband Marcus becomes part of the story. During the final month before the caucuses, the Bachmanns stormed through all of Iowa's 99 counties in 11 days, turning their campaign into a perpetual blur of exits from the massive bus, hurried handshakes and a hasty retreat back into the vehicle. I personally remember watching Marcus Bachmann literally pushing Michele out the front door of a café one of those days with a smile plastered to his face, trying to give the appearance of engaging a voter in conversation.
The constant travel and lack of sleep turned Marcus punch-drunk. One of the most amazing moments in the film is when Marcus tries to convince a middle-aged man to vote for his wife as Michele talks at ear-splitting levels about gas prices. He takes the man's hand, and begins to try to thumb wrestle him. The man laughs, but withdraws his hand, and Marcus picks it back up, saying, "One more time and it's Michele, ok?"
"I don't know what that is," the man says.
"It's thumb wrestling. It's thumb wrestling," Marcus offers.
"I don't have a thumb," the man responds. "They took the bone out of there."
Marcus turns away to a man across the table, and tries to get him to thumb wrestle. The man just shakes his head.
Santorum, meanwhile, toured all 99 counties in the state the right way: over the course of several months. And for most of the year, it didn't seem to make a bit of a difference. But Schnack and Truesdell followed him around anyway.
"We didn't care that he was in last place. We were covering him because we thought he was interesting: 'What an exercise in futility!'" Schnack said. "We thought it would be an interesting b storyline of this guy who does everything he can and comes in last place."
Of course, Santorum caught fire at the very end of December and ended up winning the caucuses, narrowly beating out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was actually declared the winner on caucus night before that result was changed two weeks later.
The film shows some of Santorum's most poignant moments: when he talked tearfully about his daughter Bella –- who has an extremely rare chromosome disorder called Trisonomy 13 –- at Frank Luntz's candidate forum; and when he explained to a voter why he and his wife, who stood next to him crying, had brought their son, Gabriel, home from the hospital for several hours after he died from being born prematurely.
Schnack and Truesdell are with Santorum on New Year's Eve, when the Des Moines Register poll shows that he has come out of nowhere to gain second place. They show Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley pestering reporters for the results, and then whispering them into Santorum's ear as he talks with supporters. Santorum responds with satisfaction, but also with an air that this is what should have happened all along.
The filmmakers went out of their way to avoid interacting with the candidates.
"They sort of forgot about us being there because we weren't interacting with them," Schnack said. "We were able to get pretty invisible pretty quickly."
That, he said, along with some key diplomatic work they did early in 2011 to develop relationships and communicate their idea to candidates' staffs, allowed them to be around the candidates and to film them at times when no other cameras were present. Most importantly, at those times, the candidates were not "playing to the cameras" like they would have been if the filmmakers were more of a presence.
The storytellers became unseen so that they could make visible what most people often don't notice, including the little girl whose mother stands behind her and asks Mitt Romney to sign a campaign poster. The girl's eyes are level with Romney's hands, and the camera never leaves her as she stares intently at the pen moving quickly across the blue and white poster board. The camera lingers, and so does the girl. She is filled with curiosity, and a bit of awe. Finally, her mother taps her on the shoulder, she turns and is gone.
"Caucus" is playing in select cities and will be available on DVD and iTunes in February.