Documentary Review: New York teens run a campaign for president — “American Gadfly”

Sometimes your homework on a film takes you back to first principles. Is “American Gadfly” a documentary, or is it a mockumentary? The pitch from a publicist hired by the self-distributing filmmakers had me befuddled.

Senator Mike Gravel? From Alaska? I don’t remember anybody by that name. It sounds made up. And I used to live in Alaska, working in radio news. He was a Democratic Senator from Alaska? He wrote a book called “Citizen Power?” He ran for president in 2008? And again in 2020?

I mention all that because I dare say I’m not alone in forgetting the “gadfly” senator from Alaska who read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record to help get the word out about the dishonest origins and “truth” about the Vietnam War. He was first on board the push to end the draft.

Gravel (pronounced grah-VELL) wasn’t exactly a TV news fixture in the ’70s into the ’80s. But he had a profile, a resume and a reputation, a politician with “real progressive chops” who might be persuaded to make one more quixotic run for president to create “ripples in the system” and introduce subjects no one else was talking about in the 2020 campaign.

One problem with that? Gravel was long-retired, 89 years old and living in Monterrey. He’d be the “oldest person ever to run for president.” Another problem? The people asking were a bunch of teenagers from Ardsley, in Westchester County, New York, Ground Zero for white entitlement in America.

“American Gadfly” is about a campaign that few noticed outside of the twitterverse, a funny, unfiltered re-introduction of Gravel to America and a peek into todayt American politics and the political and political news ecosystem.

A quartet of whipsmart high schoolers — David Oks, Henry Williams, Elijah Emery and Henry Magowan — cooked up the idea of a campaign that could inject leftist ideas and ideals into an already-large but generally conservative Democratic political primary field with the hope of shifting the debate leftward.

In Gravel, the boys had themselves a potential candidate “more Bernie than Bernie,” says New York Times Magazine writer Jamie Keiles at one point. They had a figure with a “real record, a real place in history,” adds Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel, a gadfly who might serve the role of “irritating the front runner” as he shifted the direction of the debate.

If only Gravel could get into the candidate debates, something he did back in 2008. If only his young, idealistic, quick and clever “staff” could get him the 65,000 individual campaign donors — using mainly Twitter as their campaign platform and donation soliciting tool — that the Democratic National Committee had set as the bar for qualifying to be on the stage in those debates.

The debut documentary of Skye Wallin takes us into that campaign, the blizzard of tweeted jokes, platform positions and cutesy videos they used to make a very minor splash back in 2019-2020. Gravel, who died last summer at 91, was a lively, willing participant in this attempt to game the system, just to get his long-dormant push for “direct democracy, a legislature of the people” (everybody having a vote on every major issue) back into the public eye.

They pitched Gravel by phone, took notes on his pet causes and direct way of expressing himself, and he gave them his Twitter password. They’d translate his thoughts into slangy, Gen Z “owns” of Trump and the Democratic candidates trying to take his job.

 “Good morning @pete.buttigieg did you finish your policy page yet it’s due today you can copy mine dude just hurry.”

The next thing you know, “No More Wars,” and “every donation” goes to help cover “Henry Kissinger’s air fare to the Hague (to stand trial for war crimes)” are tweeted out in comic Jeremiads. Political celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman and Alyssa Milano were retweeting them and even late night talk show comics were taking (limited) notice.

Political journalists were giving credit to Gravel, who did almost no campaigning himself, as “the id of the (Democratic) left” in a campaign where centrists, outright conservatives and flakes such as Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard were getting heard, but nobody really to the left of Bernie Sanders was.

“American Gadfly” can come off as a self-satisfied victory lap for a victory that never happened. Gravel never made it on a debate stage, never campaigned in Iowa and some of the claims the kids make for his “impact” seem dubious, at best.

The film captures little of the lives these college-bound teens interrupted to take on this challenge, and does little to make them likable. It’s no shock when they start to have falling outs over the level of commitment, with them comfortable together, but not all that at home holding forth as public speakers or the “face” of the campaign.

One can’t get past the sense that it’s all just “a game” and that these youngsters, probably the least diverse campaign of that election cycle, were treating it as that or as resume building. They snark-tweet about candidates using their campaigns to raise their profile and to some degree, this quartet is doing exactly the same thing.

Did Andrew Yang really want to hire them as his digital outreach/social media team?

As they hobnob with Yang and beg for his help, and that of Williamson (who comes off much more sane here than she was portrayed by the political press) and the opportunist Gabbard, in getting the word out to round up those final donors, you expect some cynicism to enter into their generally self-aware efforts.

I mean, look at who they were asking for help. Look at who was retweeting them.

Still, the film gives us a taste of digital-age politicking, the ways Twitter shapes and amplifies debate on the Left and the limits of that digital-only campaign approach, as valuable as it might be in shaking off the country’s allowing two backward, conservative states — Iowa and New Hampshire — to hijack the process of picking presidential candidates.

And to their credit, “There’s no real reason (for Generation Z) to be cynical,” Williams asserts. And, Magowan adds, “Young people have more power than they can possibly realize.” And maybe “the teens running #Gravelanche” did “get a couple of ideas” into the political “ecosystem.” Maybe if they don’t give up and start showing up, the “radical reforms” Gravel backed for most of his career, reforms that have a constituency not just in celebrities and Generation Z, but in other corners of the electorate, won’t just be the fruitless pleas of the next American Gadfly.

Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: Sen. Mike Gravel, Henry Williams, David Oks, Dave Weigel, Jamie Keiles, Elijah Emery and Henry Magowan.

Credits: Directed by Skye Wallin. A SunPunks release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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