By Betsy Rothstein - 12/12/06 12:00 AM EST
Eric Massa may have lost his recent bid for Congress in New York’s 29th Congressional District, but don’t feel too bad for the passionate Vietnam veteran. He may have a future in reality TV.
Massa steals the show in the upcoming documentary “Taking the Hill,” which follows four military veterans — who are all running as Democrats — through the emotional twists and turns of their congressional campaigns. The one-hour, 40-minute film airs on the Discovery Times Channel tonight at 9 p.m.
Along with Massa, a Navy veteran who served combat tours in Beirut and Operation Desert Storm, the film’s other vets include Tammy Duckworth, who served in Iraq with the Illinois National Guard, Rick Bolanos (Texas), a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army, and Patrick Murphy (Pa.), who also fought in Iraq as an Army captain. Murphy is the only war veteran of the four who won a seat in the 110th Congress. He is one of 62 who ran with a group called the “Band of Brothers”; four were elected to Congress.
One brilliant aspect of the film is that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The two thirty-something Arkansas-born brothers who made the film, Craig and Brent Renaud, are accustomed to working around the clock. They spent a year in Iraq embedded with the Arkansas National Guard to produce their most recent film, “Off to War.” In 2005, their documentary “Dope Sick Love” was nominated for an Emmy. For that, they spent 18 months on the streets of New York following the lives of heroin addicts.
“There is really no separation between us and the film,” says Brent Renaud. “We don’t think about how many hours we’re shooting.”
There are no voiceovers in the documentary. The characters speak for themselves. The pacing is slow and quiet and shifts from a sign on the side of a white pickup truck to a speech to the front of a house.
“Overall, one of the things that was interesting to us was, Can Mr. Smith still go to Washington?” says Craig Renaud. “None of these guys had vast personal wealth.”
Speaking of which, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is an obvious thorn in Massa’s side. Massa is outraged that Emanuel won’t provide his campaign an infusion of DCCC cash. He’s also irked because Emanuel keeps trying to tone down what he perceives as Massa’s angry rhetoric.
In one such scene, Emanuel has just paid Massa a visit. He pulls aside the candidate — who admittedly has a hard time containing his, well, we’ll call it passion — and instructs him to “take it down a notch,” as though admonishing a small child. When Massa doesn’t heed Emanuel’s warnings, the chairman gives him another one: “You gotta raise $200,000 each month for the next four months, otherwise it ain’t gonna happen.”
Emanuel continues advising Massa: “Second thing, smile. Have fun. Do you ever remember a person not likeable winning? Be likeable.”
Later in the car, speaking with former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who serves as a mentor to the veterans throughout the campaign season, Massa relays his interaction with Emanuel. “Rahm Emanuel thinks I’m uptight,” Massa says.
To which Cleland replies, “F—k ’im.”
Later in his campaign, Massa learns that Emanuel has personally recruited another Democratic candidate to run against him in the primary, but it didn’t pan out. Despite the anger and awkwardness this creates, Bill Clinton ends up stumping for Massa on the campaign trail.
Still, the endless support from Cleland continues, as evidenced in another exchange between Cleland and Massa, who have just left a campaign event.
“Senator, you were fantastic,” Massa gushes.
And the admiration appears to be mutual.
“I just love being with you, man,” Cleland responds. “You’re going to win this f—cking thing.”
While Massa captures the funnyman role, each candidate has his or her own spotlight in the film. There’s Duckworth’s relentless spirit and optimism that shines through despite the fact that she lost her legs and had her arm shattered in Iraq. There’s Bolano’s ability to be authentic as he breaks down during a campaign event and describes to other war veterans how he held a dying a man in his arms. And there’s Murphy, who gets a visit from singer Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who performs at one of his fundraisers.
“We’d be a better country if these people could make it to Congress. I just got lucky. I have to represent all of us,” he says.
Be prepared. The documentary moves quickly from sharply funny moments to incredible tearjerker scenes. In one such moment, Murphy’s father goes door to door with his son asking voters for money.
“My son’s an Iraqi war veteran,” Murphy’s dad tells a man on a porch.
“He’s a hero,” the voter responds.
Murphy’s dad tries to contain his emotions but he begins to cry. The fact is that 19 men in Murphy’s unit didn’t make it home alive. “Any support you could give, we appreciate it,” he says. “You hope that you never get the word that your son isn’t one of the ones who doesn’t make it back, that’s all.”
He walks down the street, crying all the way.
In another rough scene, Bolanos visits the parents of a fallen female Iraqi war veteran. Inside is a shrine of photographs of the young woman. Both the mother and father fall into tears, followed by Bolanos, who literally feels their pain.
And then the funny moments: Massa is driving to a campaign event when he introduces his financial adviser: “Sitting behind me is Jeff English. Hard to know exactly what he does for me.”
In many instances Massa appears to go through an identity crisis as he contemplates aloud who he thinks he has to be for Washington and who he really is: “Some days I just want to scream, ‘Why can’t I just be who I am?’”
Perhaps the funniest Massa scene is when he visits the National Marine Engineers to ask for money. “When are you going to write me a check for $10,000?” he brazenly asks the organization’s representative minutes into the meeting.
“It won’t be this quarter,” the man responds, explaining his loyalties to the incumbent, Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.).
This is when Massa loses it. “Everyone wants to accommodate, have a cocktail party,” he rants. “Meanwhile, the whole country is getting sucked down the toilet. We should have been kicking them [members of Congress] between the legs years ago.”
Cleland also provides some comic relief. While stumping for Murphy one day the quadriplegic lawmaker tells a small group of voters, “I wasn’t wounded in Vietnam. I just went duck-hunting with Dick Cheney.”
Massa isn’t all funny. He’s also seriously angry and straightforward about what he believes. “Truth be told, our president will stand in front of any group of veterans, but the truth is, he will not stand behind any of us and we’ll put a stop to that soon.”
Duckworth is the least outwardly emotional of them all as she describes what happened when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
“I should have bled out and died in four and a half minutes,” she says. “I managed to survive 15 minutes. My crew thought I was dead. They didn’t just leave me behind. They recovered what they thought was my body.”
Duckworth was recently appointed director of Veterans Affairs for the state of Illinois.
Just before watching the film last week at a special screening at George Washington University, Duckworth set the record straight on why she ran, and explained her feelings about seeing herself on film.
“I hate seeing myself. I hate reading things about me. I hate when people say I’m a hero — I’m not. I ran for office because I got mad at the direction my country was taking.”
Oh, and one more thing: “You’ll probably see me squirming in the audience,” she says.
Bolanos was less shy about his film debut. “I’m not camera-shy by any means,” he says, adding jokingly, “I think I look pretty ugly. I like the fact that there’s a lot of spontaneity to it.”
The film ends on a downbeat as three of the four candidates lose. Some handle it better than others. Duckworth remains upbeat. Bolanos breaks into tears and hugs the family and friends who supported him.
And Massa? Well, he takes it as one might expect. First he gets mad watching news reports about Emanuel’s success. Then he tells it how he sees it.
“Well, sometimes Mr. Smith doesn’t go to Washington,” he says as the TV screen flashes his slim 51-49 margin loss. “The bottom line is, veterans will get screwed. It’s been happening for decades.”