As the black and white footage rolls, images of a bygone era flash past: signs shouting “Stop the War!” and protesters of the 1960s beaten back by police, symbols of the American fight for justice and liberty. Cut to actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia), as he sits in front of his television set, scruffily unshaven, face frozen in a bored trance as he observes the protest footage and sighs, “I’ve always had an aversion to politics.” So begins director Donovan Leitch’s The Last Party, the third in a series of documentaries following supposedly politically-disinterested actors as they observe the events preceding a presidential election, all in the name of searching for today’s definition of democracy. Though the last film in the series employed the decidedly liberal Robert Downey, Jr. as narrator, Hoffman seems a newcomer to the political realm, but no less jaded for his self-imposed separation from politics. The documentary follows the 2000 presidential election (the original plan was to release The Last Party on inauguration day, but complications arose), and, though it draws attention to some salient issues, it leaves the audience in the end sharing the same hopeless apathy Hoffman expresses from the documentary’s beginning.
From the moment Hoffman’s documentary road trip through politico-land begins, it’s clear the film seeks to expose the seedy underbellies of both the Democratic and Republican parties. While Hoffman admits that “I felt ill-informed” as his main reason for undertaking the project, film clips of a grinning Al Gore in a swimming pool cut to a swashbuckling George W. Bush on “Oprah” and crowds of teenage girls screaming at both parties’ conventions as if in the presence of rock stars. Truly poorly edited clip transitions and the sometimes cloyingly obvious soundtrack portray both parties’ campaigns as playing to the American media and the unassuming voting public rather than informed members of the population. Footage of both the Republican and Democratic national conventions runs to the tune of the “Chicago” showstopper “Razzle Dazzle,” as towers of red, white and blue balloons are erected above crowds of what can only be described as adoring fans, who wave American flags and treat each candidate’s entrance as no less than the coming of the messiah.
When Hoffman questions attendees of both conventions as to why they support the respective candidates, he succeeds in showing how many Americans are just as ill-informed as he; on both sides of the fence, smiling ladies and gentlemen scream, “He stands for education, morality, and American values!!” as if trying to compensate for lack of knowledge with volume. Indeed, it is only The Shadow Convention, the little publicized Green Party gathering hosted by Bill Maher, which Hoffman portrays as conveying any truth. In the wake of the patriotic assault at the major parties’ conventions, Maher’s declaration of politics as “as system of bribery” and Eddie Vedder’s pensive rendition of “The Times They Are A’Changin” seem, through Hoffman’s lens, most genuine.
Thus begins the thread of Green sympathy which seems to take the unassuming Hoffman by surprise and, by the documentary’s end, becomes clear as part of what is arguably Leitch’s unstated agenda. Watching Hoffman’s face during his frequent interviews with celebrities and less frequent interviews with congressmen becomes a show in itself; to measure by the expressions of adoration he gives these stars, one would never guess Hoffman was an established actor with intelligent roles under his belt. He gapes in agreement as Susan Sarandon reveals that “seeing kids protest [the WTO] makes me well up and get sentimental,” and becomes as giddy as a 13-year-old girl at the prospect of speaking with the Reverend Jesse Jackson for five minutes. At times Hoffman even seems concerningly unaware of his interviewees’ backgrounds and ideologies. Judging by his vehement nods of agreement to every word they utter, he treats radicals such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore as sages on politics, and uses the frequently relapsing, often arrested addict/rock star Scott Weiland as the film’s voice of displeasure with drug policy.
Despite the attention Hoffman gives to outspoken Hollywood faces, it’s the passing comments in The Last Party which make the greatest impact. Newt Gingrich’s straight-faced, calm statement of no objection to political protest remains in memory longer than Hoffman’s headachingly long documentation of the Florida voting scandal. Leitch treats Gingrich’s comment as emblematic of a politician who understands the political system and, without resigning himself to views not his own, faces up to the reality of what some voters need to hear. On the other hand, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank ’61 states what many may not want to hear when he frankly says, “The problem is people on the left don’t vote; the most successful organizations, like the NRA and AARP, don’t protest!”
Due to Leitch’s direction and Hoffman’s naïve approach, too many audience members will leave The Last Party weary of the U.S. political system and, like Hoffman, still averse to a political system they don’t, or maybe refuse to, understand. If the filmmakers wish to mobilize viewers at all, it’s Frank’s comment which should ring truest; that, in a country where politics will in the near future remain a workable system, the responsibility for voter apathy lies with the people themselves.