Last year proved the year of political dark horses, upending expectations of both US parties and standards. Luke Walker’s observational documentary of one such horse, evangelical neurosurgeon Ben Carson, offers insight into the driving financial forces behind modern day campaigning and the fevered conviction of his supporters – on a campaign doomed to blunder.
Walker is no stranger to stories of conviction. Both of his previous documentaries Beyond Our Ken (2008) and Lasseter’s Bones (2012) are about individuals driven by absolute beliefs, covering the disciples of the Kenja cult, and a lifelong search for a hidden reef of gold respectively. Here however, nominee Ben Carson himself seemed reluctant to run for presidency, instead the fervour is driven by the real protagonists - the SuperPAC's Walker has embedded himself in.
Carson's sudden political rise was driven entirely by a controversial speech slamming then-President Obama's policies and his remarkable history outside of politics. Climbing from poverty, Carson claims he turned his life around academically through Scripture before becoming one of the best known neurosurgeons in the world after performing an impossible separation on two conjoined twins. Walker says this backstory was what caught his attention after the release of Lasseter's Reef. "I was looking through the Republican ticket and didn't recognise his name, so I looked into his back story and it was amazing." A successful self-made black Republican, an outsider to politics and an outspoken fan-base clamouring for him to run for presidency - he was perfect.
While documenting this hype and excitement Walker’s film is at its strongest, charting events and introducing an array of volunteers and PAC employees. Their interactions feel natural and Walker’s presence unobtrusive, it is a testimony to his fly-on-the-wall camera work that this time spent feels genuinely exciting (and some clever editing inserts some uncertainty sans-voiceover). Unfortunately Carson’s tale does not end climactically, and the slow burn of his campaign into obscurity largely matches the liveliness of the documentary.
Whilst the insight into the lifestyle of PAC leaders is unmatched and consistently interesting the campaign itself overstays its welcome. Even on first viewing it feels like Walker was unsure how to conclude this story. Even a strong final scene as other right-wing interests begrudging accept Trump is not enough to tie the story neatly.
A capable documentary that takes us a long way behind the scenes, but overstays and in remaining detached from the story plays its cards safely.