FILM REVIEW — Very early in the documentary Charlie vs Goliath, the film’s main character Charlie Hardy — a 75-year-old former priest who ran a quixotic election campaign against U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi — lays out the meaning behind the film’s title.
“Goliath is not just Senator Enzi,” Hardy says, “it’s a whole system.”
The film follows the 2014 Wyoming Senate race, but is mostly a visual essay with two themes: One is the power of money in politics, the other is the idealism of Hardy, a Cheyenne resident and political outsider who runs, he says, out of a desire to serve others. Hardy’s goal, he tells voters, reporters and the documentarians’ cameras, is to install a politician who is beholden to Wyoming voters and not big campaign donors.
“We in Wyoming are politically the most powerful people in the whole United States,” he says at the film’s start. “We have a little over half a million people. We have two senators and a representative, and we can get in and talk to them.”
Hardy remembers meeting with former Vice President Dick Cheney in his office when Cheney was still a representative. “It was a Saturday morning in my memory, he had on blue jeans, and we talked,” he says. “That was Wyoming.”
Today, Wyoming politicians still wear a lot of denim, but for many in the state the sense of connection with their representatives in Washington D.C. has been lost. “It’s money that’s talking to them,” Hardy says in the film.
WyoFile was approached by filmmaker and journalist Reed Lindsay with an advance copy of the film in response to a pair of mid-October stories on possible challengers to incumbent U.S. Senator John Barrasso in 2018.
In those stories, political veterans told WyoFile they still considered Wyoming a small state where voters expect to be able to look their Washington D.C. representatives in the eye. Lindsay’s film contests that notion.
Over the last year, the documentary has screened at film festivals from Sun Valley, Idaho to Nashville, Tennessee. On Dec. 7, it makes its Wyoming debut at the Lincoln Theater in Cheyenne. Wyoming Promise, a grassroots organization that’s seeking to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is hosting the event. The court case opened the floodgates to the political action committees, anonymous donations and corporate giving that today dominates ever more expensive election campaigns.
Charlie vs Goliath employs the landscape shots that pepper most movies about this big empty state, but Lindsay latches on to one vista in particular — wind turbines, ranged against the horizon. The motif is not accidental, as Hardy and others frequently relate his campaign to the novel Don Quixote, in which an aging Spanish nobleman loses his mind and jousts futilely with windmills he believes are giants.
In the documentary, Hardy’s “horse” is an old school bus, in which he tours the state with a group of bearded and unkempt campaign aides — each a character unto themselves.
The banter on the bus and the novelty of the campaign are moving. But some of the best political commentary on the state comes from scenes shot away from the campaign trail.
Lindsay left the campaign often to conduct interviews and stop passerby on the street, he told WyoFile. He wanted to take the political pulse of Wyoming residents, whom he described as often seeming to “consider themselves as being from Wyoming first and America second.”
In one sequence, working-class people talk about economic struggles in the energy state. It is prefaced by Hardy talking about his own childhood in Cheyenne, when his father was able to buy a home and raise a family on his salary as a lineman for the Union Pacific. That’s not true today, Wyoming residents remind the camera.
“There’s a lot of service jobs,” a woman wearing a Walmart hat says. “There’s not the kind of jobs that you can really make a living off of.”
For Hardy and Lindsay, that economic struggle arises in large part from the disconnect between today’s politicians and the people they’re supposed to represent. Jack Pugh, a former statehouse Democrat from Green River and one of many left wing Wyoming political fixtures interviewed in the film, describes Enzi, Sen. John Barrasso and then-Rep. Cynthia Lummis as hardwired to give more weight to corporations than people. Enzi has been shaped by Gillette’s dependent relationship upon big coal companies, Pugh tells the camera, and that attitude extends to his colleagues in the congressional delegation.
Enzi, Barrasso and Lummis “are philosophically disposed towards those big corporations,” Pugh says. “Their understanding of how you put together a society is driven by the notion that those are the most important institutions.”
Another sequence features Wyoming cowboys in the cattle chutes and at the shooting range, unloading on the influence of money in politics.
Lindsay didn’t force those responses or ask leading questions, he told WyoFile. “I was amazed at how often people jumped right into money in politics,” he said. The frustration from the Wyoming cowboys was the same he’d expect to get conducting man-on-the-street interviews in Berkeley, California, he said. There’s a parallel that might shock some in the Cowboy State.
Hardy learns and progresses as a politician over the course of the film. But throughout, he drags his feet on fundraising. Hardy refuses on principle to accept corporate donations or donations from lobbyists, but he doesn’t pursue the alternative — small donors — with much aplomb either.
In the end, Hardy got smoked. He won 17.5 percent of the 2014 general election vote, a record low for a major party candidate, according to the film.
But that’s not the point, at least not for Lindsay. For the filmmaker, the motivation to make the film comes in three sets of facts laid out on a black screen towards the movie’s conclusion.
With his grassroots, lackluster fundraising, Charlie raised just $62,468. What he did raise however came entirely from individuals.
Enzi raised $3.3 million.
The majority of that money came from political action committees representing corporate interests outside of Wyoming, according to the film.
Both Hardy and Lindsay believe these facts add up to something worth changing. That’s why he wanted the film’s first showing in the state to be held in conjunction with Wyoming Promise.
For the filmmaker, Hardy represents what a politician should be. Part of that is Hardy’s clear dedication to service — the two men first met when Lindsay was working as a journalist in Latin America, and Hardy was in the midst of serving eight years as a missionary in an impoverished Venezuelan neighborhood. “He is just such a humble, sincere, honest person,” Lindsay said.
However, “there’s a Catch-22,” Lindsay told WyoFile. “People do care about this issue [money in politics]. But in order for the voters to know that a candidate cares about them, a candidate has to have money.”
During the 2016 election, another lanky, white-haired political maverick proved a campaign against money in politics didn’t have to go broke. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders built a successful grassroots fundraising campaign that raised more than $228 million by the end of 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. None of it came from political action committees, a rarity for a presidential race.
It is debatable what drove the disillusioned Wyoming voters portrayed in Lindsay’s film to the polls in 2016. It may have been Donald Trump’s populist appeal, or disdain for Hillary Clinton — a candidate successfully painted by opponents as the consummate D.C. insider, and considered by many in the state to be unacceptable after her poorly chosen comment about putting coal miners out of work. Either way, record numbers showed up to Wyoming polls on election day, and they voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
Since then, critics point to Trump’s record of appointing lobbyists and industry champions to regulatory agencies designed to protect the public as evidence that the election in fact heralded more corporate influence, not a populist revolution.
Lindsay’s premier comes with another election season just around the corner for the Equality State. Wyoming will see two statewide races for national office, with incumbents Rep. Liz Cheney and Sen. John Barrasso seeking to remain in their seats.
Thus far, no clear challengers have emerged for Cheney. Barrasso, on the other hand, has seen two potential primary challengers with immense financial resources come out from the woodwork.
It is doubtful such a primary race, likely to reflect national battles for the soul of the Republican party, will discuss the issues championed by Hardy — campaign finance reform or raising the federal minimum wage.
Seemingly undaunted by his opponents, Barrasso is no slouch when it comes to campaign fundraising and is likely to have the support of national establishment Republican donors and PACs. Moneyed incumbents make grassroots campaigns — even in a state with a mere 262,660 registered voters — battles with Goliath indeed.
“Charlie is ever the optimist,” Lindsay said of his character, “and he will always believe that it can be done through miracles.”
So far this year, a challenger has not emerged on the left for either incumbent. A caustic and expensive campaign in the Republican primary may give Democrats a rare opportunity in the senate race. Still, any serious challenger will need to do more fundraising than Hardy — with whichever type of donor they target. That’s just the way the system works right now.
Wyoming Promise premiers the film December 7 at the Lincoln Theater in Cheyenne. Details and tickets here.