The debut of the Sundance Channel's documentary series "The Hill" delivered at least half of what it promised last night, especially the part about offering us a "glimpse inside Capitol Hill."
First, we got a good taste of Robert Wexler's staff, starting with chief of staff Eric Johnson, who is immediately established as gay (he came out after first abandoning the GOP). One of the first scenes showed Johnson dealing with news that the death toll among U.S. forces in Iraq had reached 1,000 (yeah, it was filmed that long ago). Johnson wants to make an issue of it so that the public will "reflect" on this "important milestone," but it's a tricky thing since Wexler, well, you know, totally supported the war.
"We focus on the cost," he says decisively. "We can do that without getting into Iraq policy."
Beautiful. You yell about the bad results but keep away from the fact that your boss was behind it.
That's politics -- and that's Johnson. He comes across as the perfect political animal. Clean. Driven. Clever. Funny. Manipulative. And absolutely
Then there's the chicks, communications director Lale Mamaux and legislative assistant for foreign affairs Halie Sofer. Mamaux comes across as the prototypical stressed-out political mother hen. I suppose every Congressional office needs one. Every time she brings her severe visage on screen, there's a balled-up, calm-the-fuck-down tension coming from her. But this first show was much more about Sofer, a pure political operative/worker bee who lights up the screen pretty well.
We're told Sofer attended a political rally in Washington at a young age, but we aren't let in on what the hell kind of rally it was. She says her parents are hippies, but in an old photograph her father sure looks like a short-hair to me. I'm betting he was no real hippie. Sofer herself is far from one; she's a clear-eyed professional. Half the show, she's in Palm Beach County trying to drum up support for Kerry. And it brings us back to that time, especially when we watch the staff watching the first televised debate, where Bush was flat awful. At one point, Johnson says something like, "If America votes for this guy, they deserve what they get." True that.
And it's with Sofer that the producers gave us false promises. They told us to expect "police intimidation." That turns out to be a cop simply telling Sofer to leave an area. It was like five seconds and there's no intimidation. The big subplot about her Republican boyfriend? Next to nothing. We don't even meet the guy and it's over before you give a damn anyway. But she nonetheless gave this first show a spark with her spirited, if humiliating, stumping on the South Florida streets for the doomed Massachusetts senator.
"I'm looking for Jews," she says as she embarks on her mission.
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Everything she does is geared at Jewish voters. She wears a hat that reads, "John Kerry is good for Jews." She hands out Kerry stickers in Hebrew. Wexler himself attends a Jewish rally, yarmulke on head (along with mensch extraordinaire Mandy Patinkin, who apparently spends a lot of time with the Boca congressman).
Oh yeah, Wexler is in this thing. He's more distant than the rest (except for legislative director Jonathan Katz, who got little air time, likely because he has much more sense than the others). You get the idea that Wexler sort of wanted to be like Bill Clinton was in The War Room, keyed in on at important public events to enhance his prestige. And he does pop up, predictably, on an endless stream of TV appearances. But he can't help but to get his yap going behind-the-scenes every now and then. At one point, he's got this nasal twang going about how he doesn't want to give a half-ass speech, how he wants to speak his mind, blah-blah-blah. It's the most stilted moment of the first show.
But the production is kind to Wexler, overall. And it was a pretty good start. Months pass in thirty minutes, so you sense there were a lot of slow days for director Ivy Meeropol, but she wrangles the keepers expertly, with a fast pace and plenty of funny moments. It ends on a sad note, though, Kerry's loss to Bush. When you watch the staff sulk at Wexler's house the night of the election returns, you wonder how much of it is because they really care and how much is because they know they have at least four more years loitering outside the halls of power.
Overall -- solid. Better than I expected. Looking forward to Episode 2 next week.