Strange bedfellows: Grassroots *** & True Wolf ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2012)

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Seattle politician in native habitat: Grassroots.

There aren’t many political biopics that open with the candidate-to-be dressed in a bear suit and screaming at traffic. But then again, there aren’t many cities I have lived in that have a political climate quite like Seattle. I’ve never forgotten what a standup comic pal (and long-time resident) told me when I first moved to the Emerald City 20 years ago. “Don’t let anybody bullshit you about how ‘hip’ or ‘metropolitan’ this town is,” he advised, “…Because it will always be Mayberry with a Space Needle.”

A case in point would be the brief but colorful political career of Grant Cogswell, which has provided fodder for a film from director Stephen Gyellenhaal (yes, acting siblings Maggie and Jake are his progeny). Cogswell (Joel David Moore) was an unemployed music critic (a polite term for “slacker”) with no prior political experience, who made a run for a city council seat back in 2001. His unconventional grassroots campaign was managed by his friend and fellow political neophyte Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs). The film opens with Campbell getting fired from his gig writing for The Stranger (Seattle’s long-running alt-weekly hipster rag). “You can’t get any lower,” a self-pitying Campbell whines to his live-in girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose). What’s he to do with all his time now?

The answer soon arrives when he is roped into joining his eccentric pal Grant on a quest to unseat incumbent councilman Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). Cogswell sees McIver as the quintessential self-serving politician in bed with the Big Money Boys; in this case emptying city coffers for an ambitious light rail project, when the answer to Seattle’s traffic congestion has been right there in front of everybody since the 1962 World’s Fair: the monorail. Why not expand this cheaper, green-friendly “…super-ass modern transportation system”? Launching his campaign armed with this “electro-strategy”…they’re off to the races.

While political junkies may take umbrage that Gyllenhaal’s screenplay (co-written with Justin Rhodes and based on Campbell’s campaign memoir Zioncheck for President) takes a broad approach by favoring the kookier elements of the story, I think most viewers will find his film engaging. The cast’s energy and enthusiasm is palpable, and whilst Gyllenhaal’s film lacks the verbal agility and pacing of, say, The Great McGinty (particularly with lines like “Politics, bitches!”), he seems to be channeling Preston Sturges at times. I think it was wise for Gyllenhaal to eschew the political minutiae; otherwise he may have ended up with something of little interest to anyone besides Seattleites. In fact, the best thing about this film is that it (dare I say it?) renews your faith in the democratic process. In these cynical times, that is a good thing.

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Canis lupus in unnatural habitat: True Wolf.

It’s often said that “politics makes strange bedfellows”, but have you ever heard of a “wolf ambassador”? Before I screened Rob Whitehair’s modest but engrossing new documentary True Wolf, I certainly hadn’t. A cross between Born Free and Never Cry Wolf, Whitehair’s film tells the story of how a wolf named Koani became an environmental activist (in a manner of speaking) and touched the lives of thousands. Born into captivity, Koani was raised by Montana couple Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker, who co-founded Wild Sentry: The Northern Rockies Ambassador Wolf Program back in 1991. The star of the show was Koani, who traveled around the country with Tucker (and the family dog) to appear at schools and museums. Together, they helped dispel common misconceptions about wolves.

The film mixes newer interviews with footage culled over the 16 years of Koani’s life, which was both a trial by fire and labor of love for her empathetic human “parents”. Ever cognizant of the inherent “wrong” (no matter how noble one’s intentions) in keeping such a magnificent wild creature enclosed or on a leash, Weide and Tucker nonetheless overcame the challenges and found a way to truly make Koani’s life matter, and it makes for an amazingly moving story. Whitehair balances the political side of the tale (which recounts the couple’s involvement in the uproar over wolf reintroduction to the Northern Rockies) by also giving screen time to detractors. The film also gives food for thought regarding the striking commonalities between wolves and humans, begging two key questions: a) who is living on whose turf, anyway? And, b)…can’t we all just get along?

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