AFF Review: Mr. Cao Goes to Washington
I couldn't think of a more fitting movie for this Election Day than Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, and my only regret is that I can't urge you to watch it right now. The documentary screened at Austin Film Festival last month, and PBS will broadcast it in January, but in the meantime you'll have to watch Butter or The Candidate instead. (Or Idiocracy, but I digress.)
The subject of Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Republican who won a U.S. Congress seat in 2008 for Louisiana's Second Congressional District, which includes most of New Orleans district and which had elected Democrats for more than a century. Cao was running against the incumbent, William Jefferson, whom I will refer to as a politician in the very oldest traditions of Louisiana politics. Cao's victory was considered an upset, which tells you even more about why the oldest traditions of Louisiana politics are still around. (I used to live there, so I get to say that.)
Rep. Cao decided that despite his party affiliation, his goal would be primarily to work to help the people in his district. And he did, much to the surprise and dismay of the moneyed Republicans who supported him financially. He was a big fan of President Obama, and throughout much of the documentary, is pleased and proud of his relationship with the President. He was also the only Republican to vote for the House's first health-care reform bill in 2009. On the other hand, he's a devout Catholic, and his strong anti-abortion beliefs caused him to vote in ways that alienated his Democratic constituency.
Mr. Cao Goes to Washington examines Cao during his 2008-2010 term in office, both professionally and personally, including many interviews with the Congressman. He admitted to being Republican only because in his early days as an Independent politician, the Republicans courted him to join their party. The documentary portrays him as being someone who truly wants to use his political office for community service, and who isn't concerned with party politics, and who honestly believes that if he does the best job he can for his district, they'll re-elect him despite his being a Republican.
Filmmaker S. Leo Chiang has created a compelling portrait of Cao in this documentary. The politician comes off as smart, caring, devoted to his community and unbelievably naive about party politics. There's one moment during his re-election campaign in which he is completely crushed, and while I felt terribly sad for him, I couldn't believe he wouldn't have realized such things would happen in a campaign.
I was disappointed in the way the documentary tended to glide over some issues, including some of Cao's more conservative politics (other than the abortion issue). In addition, his opponent in the 2010 election is portrayed in a negative way -- admittedly Cao had negative things to say about his opponent, but it made the film feel a little too one-sided, too biased in favor of Cao's point of view. In the movie's defense, there is no way to get into the nuances of New Orleans politics in less than, say, 8 hours. At least.
Underneath the profile of a man learning politics the hard way is a terrible and cynical message. The message I got from Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is that American politics are irretrievably party-focused, and that voters and politicians don't care about issues and beliefs as much as they do about party affiliation. How many suburban Republicans in Cao's district financed him in 2008 because it meant one more Republican in the House, without thinking that he might vote for health care and other bills supported by Democrats that would benefit the people in his district?
And how many people do you think voted along party lines today without knowing something about one or more of the candidates, or not caring? Did you?