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American underdog 

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

Nearly everyone is in agreement that Jeff Smith is a losing game. Potential voters hang up on him. Even his own family is skeptical and not afraid to tell Smith that he has a snowball's chance in hell of winning retiring Missouri Democrat Richard Gephardt's seat in Congress.

"He looks like he's 12 and sounds like he's castrated," admits his own campaign communications manager, Artie Harris.

The consensus? That the ineloquent, charisma-impaired Russ Carnahan -- who nevertheless comes from a Missouri political family with major name recognition -- is a shoo-in for Gephardt's seat. Case closed.

In the homespun American values-affirming 1939 Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, an aw-shucks Everyman played by Jimmy Stewart manages to make his way to Congress with integrity and honesty intact.

The absolutely engaging, edge-of-your-seat political documentary Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? wonders whether things like integrity and underdog chutzpah aren't automatic liabilities in the dynasty- and money-oriented playing field of contemporary politics.

With his unpretentious, lisping delivery and clean-cut looks, Smith is a lamb in a wolf's game. But the 29-year-old Missouri teacher and congressional candidate also has an idealist's energy and an all-volunteer staff of apple-cheeked kids in their early 20s with no campaign experience but an impressive belief in the ideals that Smith represents.

There has been a lot of bad news in American political documentaries as of late, but Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is a rare breed -- restoring faith against all odds -- in a deeply flawed political system dominated by generic gray men coasting on a tailwind of false promises and insincere beliefs. At its most discouraging, Can Mr. Smith reveals an entrenched cynicism about the American political system. No longer voting for idealistic underdogs and people who share their beliefs, voters have begun to bank on the sure thing, supporting who they think will win.

And by the pins-and-needles climax of Frank Popper's exceedingly well-crafted film, the very future of America seems to ride on the symbolic victory or defeat of Jeff Smith.

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