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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 29, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 26
Engaging Grassroots a captivating political uprising
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Engaging Grassroots a captivating political uprising

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

GRASSROOTS
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After Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs) loses his job writing for Seattle's weekly newspaper The Stranger, he is asked by friend and unemployed music critic Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore) to run his campaign for City Council. Cogswell is passionate about the environment, passionate about the city and, most of all, passionate about a monorail proposal that would link each corner of Seattle together - quickly, cleanly, and without the use of automobiles. His opponent, the only African American on the council, Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), is a diehard supporter of adding more lanes to the freeways and in constructing a light-rail system - things Grant vehemently opposes, and because of which he wants to see McIver put out to pasture.

Having lived through these events, it's easy to see the comedic political drama Grassroots through Seattle-colored glasses, overlooking many of its bumpier aspects and more unsettling flaws. For every misstep (and there are plenty), for every wrong turn (and there are a few), the movie understands the city, its people, and the way we view things, especially politics, rather well. It gets our idiosyncrasies, if not perfectly, still rather beautifully, making the resulting movie far more enjoyable as a resident than it might be otherwise.

Or not. These sorts of political stories, about community advocates and activists who rise up to take on the status quo and discomfit those in power, are a dime a dozen these days. Heck, just in the past few years we've seen the rise of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and no matter what one thinks of either, one does have to admit that in the beginning, at least, their rise wasn't constituted by the will of those with money and/or power. Granted, at least in the case of the former, this has changed recently, the moneyed interests co-opting those they see as a threat to achieve their own political agendas.

At any rate, director Stephen Gyllenhaal's (Losing Isaiah) latest film, adapted from Campbell's memoir by Gyllenhaal and co-writer Justin Rhodes (Contract Killers), is rather entertaining for most of its brief 97-minute running time. Phil's journey from angry Everyman to driven political operative is a solid one, and watching him gain confidence as he helps build Grant into a minor political force rather sublime. Biggs inhabits the role with ease, bringing out nuances and shadings I'm not entirely sure were present in the script itself. His performance goes far beyond what we've seen in American Pie or others of that ilk, hinting at a depth, a passion, and a dramatic confidence I'm not sure he's ever been allowed to mine or showcase before.

The movie doesn't always work, and while I appreciate the fact that Moore was cast against type, the film never quite knows what to do with him. Some of his speeches and diatribes are zealously given, full of the vim and vigor necessary for the character to go from nobody to political upstart ready to usurp McIver's throne. But in other moments he comes across like a petulant child, a whining brat no one in their right mind would listen to, let alone follow all the way to the ballot box in support of.

Yet, in the end, I was won over by what Grassroots had to say. I liked how it made Campbell a flawed, three-dimensional figure worthy of both pity and admiration. I loved that he wasn't close to perfect, and didn't understand all things political right off the bat. Most of all, I liked the way he and his girlfriend Emily (Lauren Ambrose) communicated, the way they almost couldn't put into words what it was they both were feeling.

But, finally, the reason this movie works for me has nothing to do with my living in Seattle during the events depicted in the film. No, my enjoyment stems from the fact I like what Gyllenhaal and Rhodes have to say about the political process, about how they show us why candidates like Cogswell are so important to the continuing power and growth of democracy.

In a world where corporations are suddenly people and closed-minded billionaires can spend hundreds of millions on campaigns virtually without restriction, the fact people like Grant still exist, that groups like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street can still arise, give me hope that we aren't headed for a monolithic dark age straight out of 1984. Grassroots shows that win or lose, hope endures, and that the tiniest of voices can still be heard if they have the guts to stand before a microphone and let their opinions freely fly.

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Engaging Grassroots a captivating political uprising
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