The Campaign

In 2007, when Obama was on the campaign trail for President, he made an off hand comment about the price of arugula at Whole Foods which got everyone in a tizzy because if he cared about either arugula or Whole Foods he had to be a fancy-pants communist. In the middle of that fake controversy I read an article which broke my brain: it was a history of Presidential food steps and missteps, covering the skit where Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton ate a bunch of McDonalds' hamburgers (which apparently made Clinton more likeable) and the time that John Kerry ordered a Philly cheesesteak wrong (which meant he was clearly out of touch with the working man.) The article built to a quote with one of Obama's daughters (who was probably in elementary school at the time) saying that it was her opinion that her dad didn't like ice cream enough. That's when I knew that presidential politics was officially broken: to get elected you not only have to know how to govern the economy (which is probably ungovernable), and how to fix Israel / Palestine (which is probably unfixable), but you also have to like ice cream as much as the average eight year old or else think pieces will pop up in the nation's newspapers asking what's wrong with you.

There are a lot of jokes in The Campaign which are just silly, but there's also a fair number of jokes that have zeroed in on that absurd facet of our political system that are as cutting as they are funny. Marty Huggins (the candidate played by Zach Galifianakis) owns two pugs whom he loves to an unreasonable degree, but he's told by his campaign adviser that he needs to trade them out for other more American dogs which test better. And sure enough, at one of the first skirmishes he has with Cam Neely (the corrupt Congressman played by Will Ferrell) he's attacked for owning pugs since they are "Chinese dogs". Never mind that Huggins' campaign is being financed by billionaires who own Chinese sweatshops - Huggins' is too close to Communist China because he owns two dogs that descended at some point from Chinese dogs. When you're watching the movie it all seems so over the top, but when you think about it later, it is something that you could really see happening in the real world. After all, Bill Clinton had to get Buddy the dog because too many people thought he was suspicious for only owning Socks the cat, but that guy was suspicious for a lot of other more troubling reasons.

Or to give another example: at one point Neely takes a swing at Huggins but ends up accidentally punching a baby in the face. That's a broad slapstick gag, but the cutaway to the talking heads on cable news debating whether or not it's good for a grown man to punch a baby in the face... well, that's funny, but it's also sad. At no point are the news people shown talking about the differences between the two candidates - in fact, their actual positions never come up in the movie at all - but there is a lot of discussion about whether taking a rifle and shooting your opponent makes you more of a man or kind of a psycho. If you weren't familiar with American politics the extreme emptiness of what we see from the nightly news clips in this movie would seem like the next logical step in furthering the joke, but in reality, it's a pretty accurate portrait of how distorted our reporting has become. If you compared the media coverage Anthony Wiener's sexts got to the coverage that the rest of Congress got for the bills they were trying to push through it probably wasn't even close.

Obviously a candidate would never punch a baby in the face and get away with it, but if you think about the Obama McCain campaign and you contrast Obama getting into hot water for implying that he ate arugula versus McCain getting into trouble because he sang "Bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann" you start to see that this movie is not entirely satire; we live in a world where liking healthy food is just as much fodder for debate as a desire to level a foreign country from the air. I understand that there's some worth in debating the symbolism of what a candidate does, and when someone makes an offhand comment about something that's superficially trivial it can indicate something deeper about who they are, but at the same time, we shouldn't confuse symbolism with actual substance. There's a real difference between owning a "Chinese Dog" and being a communist and between being able to love arugula and being able to love America, and we forget that at our peril.

Winner: Me

The Campaign on IMDB