Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Passion In Politics

Aside from the spot for “HeadOn,” few TV commercials are as cheap, shrill and badly Photoshopped as political attack ads.

Sadly, they’ve become the predominant form of mid-term election communications for at least the last 15 years.

That negativity has had a wearying effect. Faced with ugly, screaming ads, voters disengage. (That’s partly the point; in such a scorched-earth, political consultant-driven version of democracy, low-voter turnout means the other side doesn’t get energized.) Local news coverage of political issues diminishes and, in turn, candidates claim the only way to educate the electorate is by going negative in TV ads. And so the cycle continues.

But as a soothing female voiceover in a PSA might say, now there’s hope, now there’s help. Now there’s Eliot Spitzer’s incredibly seductive TV campaign, promoting his run for governor of New York. Brain-engaging imagery! Soaring rhetoric! Haunting music! I’m the biggest political cynic around and I was knocked in the gut from the first spot on.

The elegant black-and-white photography in “Voice” (aimed at upstate New Yorkers) features a moving collage of portraits of citizens that suggests the work of photographer Walker Evans. The pictures connect because they convey so much dignity and humanity. There’s piano music underscoring the imagery, leading to the build of the voiceover: “For every New Yorker whose husband or child has to go somewhere else just to get a job. … For every New Yorker who’s … been told you can’t fight City Hall so many times they’ve come to believe it. For every New Yorker without a voice…there’s one strong enough for all of us.” Then we hear the former attorney general: “I represent the people of the State of New York.” I’m ferklempt just typing the words.

If the idea and the cadences of the speech sound familiar, it’s because the brain behind it, advertising whiz and political virgin Jimmy Siegel, admits he was inspired by the farewell of Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath. (Let’s hear it for Depression-era references!) The effect is magnetic. Of course, cynics can say that equating Princeton-Harvard-educated rich kid Spitzer with Joad, an impoverished Okie who served time in prison, is ridiculous. And you can judge that this sort of expertly produced tractor pull on the heartstrings is actually more manipulative than the cheap, screaming ads. In fairness, fighting for the underdog has been Spitzer’s thing from the beginning of his political career. And the attorney general is the only politician to have the sense this season to use TV for what it’s good for—tapping into emotions, making visceral connections, reawakening the soul.

The loss of political faith is pretty universal these days as every hour brings news of fresh corruption, like the Mark Foley outrage. This spot brilliantly addresses and attempts to fill that ethical, moral and spiritual void. The tagline is, “Bring some passion back to Albany,” which neatly contrasts with the dead-fish style of the current governor, George Pataki. In another spot, Spitzer, whose face we see in tight close- up, accentuating his eagle-like eyes and Lincolnesque bone structure, says, “With one collective roar, we’ll wake this state government out of its long sleep, and on that day, government will stop being that thing we complain about and start being that thing we can do something about.”

Siegel worked pro bono, along with director Danny Levinson of Moxie Pictures, and there really isn’t a bad commercial in the bunch. They’re all uplifting, but “Let It Shine” is the closest any Democrat has come to “Morning Again in America,” the Reagan campaign that Siegel’s mentor, Phil Dusenberry, worked on. It consists of shots of ethnically diverse children smiling at the camera—a diversity so effortless that the same visuals are used in the Spanish-language version. The music in the English version is recorded by, um, Judy Collins, which no doubt sets a new gold standard for election music. But it’s not just the singing that’s beautiful. The shots bring us an awareness of these kids as delightful, small-scale human beings. I love the cropped shot of a little girl’s feet in flip-flops as she sits on a front stoop. It’s the urban-contemporary counterpart of the iconic shot of empty workboots sitting on a farmhouse porch in “Morning in America.”

“Tribute” is the kind of moving spot that Siegel excels at. It features twinkly, nostalgic images of New York, from Niagara Falls to the Unisphere from the World’s Fair in 1964. “Remember New York?” the announcer asks. “The New York that all roads led to…that big, brash promise of opportunity?” This time we get a black-and-white cut of Spitzer’s face. “If you don’t remember that New York, don’t worry. He does.”

Actually, Spitzer was 11 years old in 1970, so he probably doesn’t.

Never mind. I still believe. It’s nighttime again in New York.