Sean Marlon Newcombe’s Scenes from a Campaign, a savvy political chamber drama with a cynic’s edge and a optimist’s persistence, wastes no time plunging its audience into its deceptively straight ahead premise. (And at a 20-minute running time, this fleet-of-foot short has none to fritter away.) There’s a rift brewing in the offices of Congresswoman Lusi Lion (Sarah Genevieve Green, who nails the politician’s survivalist facility with matching the proper face and words with their intended audience), one that threatens to divide her campaign to be elected mayor of Lenape, New York along philosophical and perhaps even gender lines in the final days before the votes are cast. Joan Quinn (Janine Pibal), one of the congresswoman’s closest advisors, has happened upon some damning material that could possibly be used against Lion’s incumbent opponent, but Quinn resists both the old-style backroom-style pressure tactics of Lion’s veteran advisor Vince Romani (Mike Gilbert) and the unctuous persuasion of senior campaign manager Joseph Fitzpatrick (Paul Reilly) to come clean on exactly what she’s got. Romani embodies impatient contempt for ethics in general, specifically those, like Quinn’s, that don’t fit into his hard-knocks view of the political machine. On the other hand, Fitzpatrick is not above exploiting his old-country Irish charm as a tool of whiskey-smooth ingratiation, which turns into intimidation with barely a ripple in his welcoming brogue.
Writer-director Newcombe sharply fragments the central conflict into a narrative that contrasts, with wily clarity, the faces each of these professional manipulators puts on for the public alongside their own slippery machinations, profane confrontations and harsh decision-making, acts marking the last desperate, ethically challenged hours of a campaign that, despite its relatively small scale, serves as a microcosm of the inevitable tensions at the heart of every such effort to secure precious votes. The movie sets up its central conflict in gender terms—Are women tough enough to survive the cutthroat world of political chicanery? But it does so with the kind of guileless surface passion that finds its match in Lion’s rather homey and vague campaign rhetoric-- she’s big on controversial political notions like community and fairness and honesty and integrity in the mayor’s office, but it's implied that even though she may believe these notions at heart, she’s not above using them as a protective patina to avoid delving into too many nasty details. Similarly, the movie may appear to be about the differences between men and women on the democratic front lines, but Scenes from a Campaign shakes out with more conviction as drama when it confronts the question of how far one needs to go, regardless of gender, to preserve and promote the likelihood of winning, and whether that’s a question to which gender is even an applicable standard.
Newcombe’s ambitions as a storyteller exceed those of his facility as a director of actors and choreographer with a camera, and considering this is his first film that’s actually a good thing. So many young filmmakers come at their craft having mastered the technology from the get-go, only to find that they have no burning passion for telling a story, or no experience from which to craft one. Newcombe’s focus on story here is compelling and sophisticated, and it demands attention, but it also signals that his heart is in the right place from the standpoint of how to approach the very act of personal filmmaking. His effort to turn the conflicts of his characters into a cogent and compelling film represents good, sensitive work. But it’s also work that does not attempt to dazzle the viewer with technique beyond his capability. Instead, Newcombe encourages the audience to believe that the technical craft will come, and if Scenes from a Campaign is any true indicator, there will be ample reason to employ that technique when the filmmaker has finally mastered it.
The cast is largely capable and well-chosen—Reilly and Gilbert both excel at making believable the craftiest and nastiest aspects of their characters’ personalities, and Green tempers our most cynical assessments of what Lion’s real commitment might be with hints of darker currents that suggest even her own staff hasn’t fully and accurately assessed her political skill. Only Pibal disappoints, and it’s largely because she has an open face that seemingly has no place to hide whatever Machiavellian intent she might harbor. In a movie about tiny shock waves underneath the political surface, an actress who can’t suggest she has her own secrets, dirty or otherwise, and use that tension for dramatic power in her scenes with the more obviously dominant men, is at a disadvantage the movie cannot find a way to artfully exploit.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can give Scenes from a Campaign, which has garnered its writer-director a nomination for Best New Filmmaker at the upcoming Staten Island Film Festival in Staten Island, New York (June 6-10), is that it feels authentic to its atmosphere and its subject, even when those seams in the story and the budget show. At times I felt like I was getting a glimpse into the inner workings of a chap-assed populist campaign the likes of which might’ve been run by Hal Phillip Walker, his man-of-the-people bonhomie and no-nonsense bromides providing a paper-thin separation between the voter and God really knows what. And the distillation of political sincerity and inevitable angst that fuels Scenes from a Campaign plays with the kind of believability that allows it to stand in such fine company as Kristian Fraga’s Anytown U.S.A. or Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight, which documents in exhilarating, exhaustive and often vicious detail the kinds of roadblocks that characterize a very similar hotly contested mayoral campaign in Newark, New Jersey in 2002. The central dilemma arrived at in Scenes actually even finds itself playing out in real life in Curry’s film, as political up-and-comer Cory Booker has to decide just how dirty dirty really is and how far he’s willing to go in the final days of his too-close-to-call contest with possibly corrupt incumbent mayor Sharpe James. That Newcombe’s film holds up at all to its real-life reflection is testament aplenty; Scenes from a Campaign has all the signposts of a first film, but it also has the power and passion of authentic political inquiry and the juice to make us wonder with hope what Newcombe will do for an encore.