Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

A man dressed as a polar bear emerges from Washington State Ferry and walks along a network of viaducts and overpasses, looking entirely out of place in the environment that engulfs him - even if one of the roads he traverses is called Alaskan Way. This is Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), an unemployed music critic on an anger-fuelled mission to end the vehicular suffocation of Seattle – and if this opening sequence from Grassroots points to problems in the city's transport system, it also marks Cogswell out (in isolating wide shot) as a lone figure whose childish predilection for theatrical grandstanding is going tragically unnoticed. Cogswell may be a rebel with a cause, but he is also a would-be politician without a proper platform.

Cogswell wants more, so he turns to friend Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs) to be his campaign manager in a bid to win City Council Position Number 8. Recently fired from his job as an alt-weekly reporter, Campbell has nothing better to do, so reluctantly agrees to take on the job, despite partly sharing the misgivings of his partner Emily (Lauren Ambrose) about the volatile Cogswell's electoral suitability, especially when squaring up against an incumbent, Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), who is popular, decent and Seattle's only African-American councillor.

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Cogswell is really a one-issue candidate, but that issue - much like the inexpensive, elegant and ecologically friendly monorail programme that he would like to see expanded - ramifies through the city and its social divisions, capturing along the way the imagination of Seattle's young, progressive and disaffected electorate. With Campbell's flatshare, a (non-branded) hipster café and a rowdy bar all serving as haphazard campaign office, Cogswell begins to grow from antsy upstart to serious contender, even as Campbell becomes a true believer.

The real Phil Campbell's 2005 book Zioncheck For President: A True Story Of Idealism And Madness In American Politics, which Grassroots adapts, drew parallels between the career of Marion Zioncheck, an eccentric leftist radical (and Washington Congressman) from the 1930s, and Cogswell's own quixotic campaigning in the 2001 Seattle City Council election. In Stephen Gyllenhaal's film, the historical analogies are more implicit than explicit, and look forward rather than backward. For it is not hard to discern in this drama of millennial disgruntlement, set in the wake of Seattle's 1999 WTO riots (where the real Campbell and Cogswell first met), a reflection of the Occupy Movement and other grassroots organisations opposed to today's status quo. This is, after all, another election year in America, with another black incumbent.

Perhaps wisely, Grassroots never really seems especially engaged with ideology. It is concerned far less with the particulars of Cogswell's and McIver's politics, and more with the snowballing enthusiasms of outsider activism, and the responsibilities that come with actual office-seeking. Even more wisely, the film itself never cheaply demonises McIver – even if Cogswell and his young acolytes certainly do. In this David and Goliath retread, Goliath is no monster, while the slings shot by David often seem underhand. In this way, many 'true underdog story' clichés (right down to the film's outcome) are slyly avoided, with most of the drama focused upon Campbell's and Cogswell's acquisition of important lessons in humility.

Still, by the end, as in so many political races, it is all about the numbers. The film's lengthy final sequence is a boozy blur of pep talks, cheering, agonising, whooping and waiting, but it is all less exciting or tense than it ought to be, not least as the results are a matter of historical record. What is more, Grassroots is so in love with its titular spirit that an underlying note of cynicism is never fully embraced. For this is a film not just about the resurgence and resilience of idealism, but also about its ultimate failure – and while Gyllenhaal seems to accept this on some level, allowing his revolutionary characters to become more mainstreamed, more compromised, even more corporatised, by the democratic process, he still cannot help emphasising the upbeat, as though feelgood were a substitute for actually doing good. With results at the ballot so close to the line, though, one might reasonably expect a bit of a mixed message to emerge.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2012
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A jaded journalist helps his friend stand for the local city council.
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Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal

Writer: Stephen Gyllenhaal, Justin Rhodes, based on the book by Phil Campbell

Starring: Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders, Tom Arnold, Todd Stashwick, Emily Bergl, DC Pierson, Christopher McDonald, Cedric the Entertainer

Year: 2012

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


London 2012

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