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The Times of Trenton Review for “Anytown, USA”

12 Jun

REVIEW OF ANYTOWN, U.S.A. – 3.5 stars
By Joyce J. Persico
Film Critic, The Times of Trenton, N.J.

There are no actors in Kristian Fraga’s mesmerizing “Anytown, U.S.A,’’ but what happens within the 90-minute documentary is as incredible as anything contained in a Hollywood script. It’s an unexpectedly entertaining movie that will make you laugh – a lot – shake your head in bewilderment and even tear up. When you’re not doing one of those things, you’ll be wondering if anyone on screen realized he was being filmed. It’s that candid and eye opening.  Fraga focuses on the 2003 mayoralty campaign in Bogota, N.J., a small North Jersey town where no one seems happy about local services, taxes or proposed school sports cuts. Three men want the position of mayor – incumbent Republican Steven Lonegan, Democratic challenger Fred Pesce and independent write-in candidate Dave Musikant, a former local sports hero. Two of the men – Lonegan and Musikant – are partially blind and only about 2,000 voters will decide their fate. Throw in the last-minute addition of the man who managed former wrestler Jesse Ventura’s successful bid for governor of Minnesota, and you have a cast of characters that brings to life a microcosm of American democracy in action.

Fraga filmed more than 300 hours with the candidates, their families, and voters, breaking down whatever face-saving barriers one would expect from everyday people. Lonegan, comes across as a politician who is satisfied with the status quo, weary of complaining citizens, annoyed by any opposition but not really concerned about a write-in candidate who possesses a great deal of local appeal. Pesce, a former councilman who comes out of retirement to run, seems to have little to say and, when a reporter asks for the most important issue of the campaign, Pesce tells him there are four and then can’t name one.

Compared to his opponents, underdog Musikant is portrayed as something of a savior, a good-natured guy from the streets whose life was changed when he lost sight in one eye following removal of a brain tumor. Unemployed, walking with a cane and not really sure how to run for mayor, he bucks the odds hoping to unite local voters behind him. At the last minute, he calls in Doug Friedline, Ventura’s former campaign manager.

It’s difficult not to root for Musikant, who seems so innocent and hopeful compared to Lonegan and Pesce. He actually believes he can make a difference in Bogota and he’s not above mentioning his sight impairment or his former high school sports hero status to win votes. There’s a sweetness to him and his forlorn nature is haunting, right up to the fateful night of the election.

Lonegan fights back through the Bogotian, a free tabloid he publishes to push his political agenda and level charges against his opponents. Some Bogotians think it’s a bona fide newspaper and the mayor isn’t about to inform them otherwise.

How Fraga got these people to succumb to his camera should be a required course in film schools because their candor strips away all the artifice of politics. His film creates such a tension as the Bogota election draws to a close it has the impact of a blockbuster drama that keeps you guessing right up to the end. And what happens after the election – revealed in an epilogue – would be almost beyond belief if it weren’t true.

That ending won’t be revealed here except to say that one of the men is now running for governor in New Jersey.

(Screened at the Trenton Film Festival, Trenton, N.J., May 1, 2005.)

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