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'Party's Over,' but the analyzing goes on

October 24, 2003|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

In the political documentary "The Party's Over," actor Philip Seymour Hoffman serves as a guide crisscrossing the country, scrutinizing the political process during the presidential election of 2000. Directed by Donovan Leitch and Rebecca Chaiklin, it's something of a sequel to 1993's "The Last Party," a similar endeavor that chronicled the events leading to the election of Bill Clinton.

Structured around visits to the two major conventions, the documentary is adept at contrasting these restricted, made-for-television events with the grittier world outside of protests and shadow conventions.

The film poses the question: Is there a difference between the Democratic and Republican parties? And the answer it comes up with is, well, complicated, which makes the film highly entertaining and thought-provoking, but also frustrating -- which, ultimately, might be the point.

The film sports an unabashedly liberal point of view, what might be called Alternative Left, and takes an analytic rather than persuasive approach to covering the election year. The minor-key questions the movie asks ("Do our voices matter?" "Can we make a difference?" "Should we care?") are what resonate rather than the comparison of the two parties.

Interviews with liberal activists such as Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Jesse Jackson on the one hand and lesser-known conservatives on the other are strung together with clips of Charlton Heston's "from my cold, dead hands" speech and Pat Robertson addressing his faithful.

The film and Hoffman also travel to points far afield, ranging from a gun show where he debates dealers on firearms controls to a Ruckus Society camp where potential protesters are schooled in the art of civil disobedience, and Willie Nelson's annual Farm Aid benefit.

The redundancies between the two political behemoths are mainly found at the conventions, in the parties' rhetoric ("We're for education and family values") and the ways they try to make their candidate look more "presidential" in the battle for the moderate voter, and more pointedly, in the issues they sidestep: poverty, health care and the environment. Beyond that, the differences still seem clear between the parties' demographics. What the film seems to be angling for is an accountability of the Democrats' abandonment of the true left. Early on, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) lays it out with an explanation that while the left protests and demonstrates, the right gets out and votes. "You never see the NRA having a shoot-in," says Frank.

The film also charts a political awakening for the initially wary Hoffman. "I always had an aversion to politics," says the actor at the beginning of the film. "Can't say why."

A well-respected film and theater actor, Hoffman gradually becomes more devoted, inquisitive and even frustrated as the process plays out before him; his fatigue on the eve of the election is well-earned.

Hoffman is especially good in the little moments, when a camera captures his incredulity or skepticism during an interview, or his ironic mouthing of the words while Lee Greenwood's saccharine "God Bless the USA (Proud to Be an American)" is performed at a confab for Christian conservatives.

Three years later, the most lasting impressions are not only that the domestic issues such as poverty and homelessness that the film looks at have not been addressed, but that they're no longer even being discussed in a meaningful way, blotted out by issues such as Iraq and homeland security that dominate the ever-willing media's coverage.

Part of the frustration with the film comes from the conflicting feelings it elicits. One, a helplessness that the gravitational pull of the two-party system toward the middle leaves those with a point of view on the outside looking in, and the other being the understanding that to do nothing is far worse.


'The Party's Over'


MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Language, police violence

Philip Seymour Hoffman...Himself

A Palisades Pictures Entertainment Group and Camouflage production, released by Film Movement. Directors Donovan Leitch, Rebecca Chaiklin. Producer Rebecca Chaiklin, Stanley Buchtal, Jon Kilik, Henri Kessler. Editor Sabine Hoffman. Music supervisor Susan Jacobs. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.

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