Remember when Sacha Baron Cohen was first able to fool politicians into his outrageous interviews? Yes? Good. If you need a refresher, here’s some classic Ali G. Anyway, consider the idea: an actor approaches a politician in character so as to get a certain “performance” from them. But this time, instead of imagining Ali G (or someone like Stephen Colbert), imagine a woman desperately serious. Strip away the cable TV goofiness and replace it with an espresso shot of suffering extracted through the concerns facing American families: unemployment, lack of health care, the gay marriage question.
Now meet Janeane. She’s that espresso shot. Last year, when all those Republican presidential hopefuls were revving their campaigns into gear in Iowa, she was there with pleas and tears. She pushed by the TV cameras to talk to Mitt Romney, who hugged her, held her close and listened as she said: “Save the small families in America!”
That movement was put on national TV. ABC’s Diane Sawyer remarked on how “moving it was” to listen to that woman. However, what she did not know was that Janeane — that woman — was not real. She was the subject of a quasi-documentary (or a humorless mockumentory) made by director Grace Lee and actress Jane Edith Wilson.
The movie — Janeane From Des Moines — follows the fictitious God-fearing, tea party Iowan as her life implodes and she attempts to narrow down which candidate to get behind. Michele Bachmann? Rick Perry? Mitt Romney? Ron Paul? Santorum? Gingrich? There were so many.
The movie is most fictitious when showing Janeane’s life crumble. These elements mostly work as a means to frame her questions to the real-life candidates. They’re also sort of boring. First off: her husband loses his job, and the health care it provided. Bad, sad news. Then the rumors come. Janeane follows them to a gay bar where she finds her husband. The marriage, she realizes, is doomed. While this happens, she learns her breasts are filled with cancer. She is alone. Not even her Bible study provides the relief it once did. Her troubles, she finds, put her in a different headspace than her Christian sisters, who stress over ski trips or being “cafeteria Christians.”
But Janeane’s not without a certain pride. She’s ardent in her beliefs and looks to politics for an answer. She goes to see Bachmann, who buys her a cup of coffee and listens to her most pressing question: What am I to do without health care? Bachmann places her hand on Janeane’s and tries to give an answer, but what comes out resembles broken sound bites – not a plan to help those desperate as she.
These interactions with politicians carry a bizarre cinematic gravity. Wilson (the actress who plays Janeane) serves up a convincing and plausible character to someone, like Bachmann, who then responds with earnest sentiment and political ideas. Strangely enough, the camera tends to see Janeane as more genuine, more thoughtful than her interlocutor. The politicians hit their key points and then move on. “Get a health savings account, “Santorum says. Janeane walks away in confusion. “I don’t even know what a health savings account is.” Somehow, through a creative paradox or cinematic wormhole, the fictional character resembles real life while the flesh-and-blood POTUS-seeking politicians resemble something sterile, made of cardboard and TV hype magic.
Janeane From Des Moines is obviously made from a filmmaker left of spectrum. That said, Lee accomplishes an impressive feat: she never makes Janeane look stupid or into some conservative punching bag. Janeane’s presented as human, someone who loves her husband and her country; she’s a woman trying, by means of her cross-and-flag culture, to do what’s best, as she sees it. In the end, she’s lost, unimpressed, dying, deeply shaken to the core of her person.
She seems like someone many Americans could relate to as we approach Election Day.
Janeane From Des Moines is playingat the St. Anthony Main Theatre. Director Grace Lee and actress Jane Edith Wilson will be at Sunday’s 7 p.m. screening.