Voter apathy among young adults is much simpler to explain that many would lead you to believe. The Economist wrote a piece why young adults do not vote and listed several valid points while leaving out the most obvious one: The first election my generation has any real recollection of is the 2000 election in which George W. Bush became president after “recount irregularities” in the state of Florida. Sure, having a family and owning a house would do a lot to boost my incentive to vote, but it’s also hard to watch companies make record profits while cutting jobs across the board as the dudes they fund in Washington say shit like this.
“If I get to be the president, white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency.” – South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham
Money runs local, state, and federal politics. It is an ugly truth that The Campaign successfully demonstrates. Although they are not the protagonists, Gleen Motch (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd) are the main catalysts for the actions that drive the plot. Similar to the Koch brothers in real-life who have spent $290 million to influence the 2014 midterm elections, the Motch brothers hand out millions of dollars in campaign funds to candidates who will acquiesce to whatever plans create more revenue for their businesses. The first time we meet the Motch brothers, they threaten to ruin the career, and life, of a politician who refuses their generous monetary offer by dragging his name in the mud via relentless political ads. Separately, they have a particular interest in the 14th district of North Carolina where they can lessen regulations to the sub-human working conditions allowed in China which would save tens of millions in revenue. This is the crux of the story.
Our two protagonists are D-Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a lazy politician expected to run unopposed, and Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a well-meaning, naive individual desperately seeking the approval of his well-connected father. The Motch brothers believe a Democrat would be opposed to lowering factory standards in the 14th district of North Carloina so they reach out to Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), and tell him to allow his son to run against Brady. Marty excitedly agrees to run on the Republican ticket because he genuinely wants to do something for the people of his district, and for the slim hope of his father being proud of his awkward son. Unfortunately for Marty, politics are ugly and he’s unprepared for the mudslinging that ensues at the start. The Motch brothers knew this would happen and so they hired Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to make Marty look like the sort of American voters want on their ballet which includes getting rid of his pugs because they are Chinese dogs.
The Campaign is basically making fun of everything that makes American political campaigns the spectacles they are. There isn’t one instance during a political debate between Brady and Huggins where they actually answer the question asked of them. One guy gives a bullshit answer and the opponent follows up with some rhetorical nonsense that riles up his base, not far off from what actually happens in American politics. The trope of kissing babies is put on its head, a perceived height differential demonstrating strength, childhood decisions being fodder to attack character, marriages are not sacred, and other minute details nitpicked in many campaigns are present.
What makes The Campaign stand out is the willingness to demonstrate how polling numbers for candidates are positively affected by unethical choices. In one hilarious instance, Brady brings the media with him to show he’s a man’s man by shooting game with a group of hunters. Before they reach the forest, Marty rolls up in a black SUV, jumps out the car with his gun, shoots Brady in the leg in front of the cameras, and leaves without a word.
Marty’s polling numbers skyrocket. To many people, that’s just too stupid to consider funny when in fact that’s pretty much how it works. Doing or saying something outrageous disgusts people who were not going to vote for the candidate anyway, but it really excites the voters who were already on their side which includes being willing to donate even more money, hence Lindsey Graham.
The Campaign goes out its way to humanize Brady and Marty, suggesting that the election process and the money involved is corrupting people who started out as well-meaning individuals. In one particular scene, Brady spills his guts because his son has run for school president but is only interested in mudslinging, not serving the student body. Brady and Marty share several drinks, agree to cease the personal attacks, and exchanges stories about growing up in the district. Brady leaves in a drunken stupor which allows Marty to report a drunk driver to local authorities. Cold world.
Brady’s broken marriage begins to mirror what’s happening with Marty’s family. Politics have fundamentally changed who he is and the love and attention available for home life. Certainly, this does not happen to all politicians but it is far from unheard of.
The Campaign is not successful at everything it attempts to accomplish. Some improvisational bits are odd and ineffective. The ending is forced and would not actually happen as it did but this is a function of genre rather than a flaw of the film. Comedies can’t have deflating endings although some reviewers likely docked the film for the ending anyway. Overall, this is a film worthy of your time if you enjoy comedies and want a fun take on the serious matter of money in politics. That or just change the tube to the channel of your choice for tonight’s coverage of the midterm elections to watch the silliness play itself out in reality.