“Joseph” Cao was elected to Congress in 2008, a generally bad year for
Republicans. He was defeated in his
re-election bid two years later—a decidedly good year for Republican
candidates. In a mere two years, the
idealistic former Jesuit seminarian received an eye-opening education in all
manner of group-think politics. Cao’s
short tenure in office is documented in S. Leo Chiang’s Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (trailer here), which screens
during the upcoming Asian American International Film Festival in New York.
to America while his father was still a captive of a Communist Vietnamese
re-education camp, young Cao led an eventful life before he even considered a
political career. Choosing law school
over a life of the cloth, Cao became an activist leader in Versailles, New
Orleans’ small but enterprising Vietnamese community (profiled in Chiang’s
previous documentary, A Village Called Versailles). Louisiana’s second
congressional district was deliberately drawn to elect an African American Democrat,
everything that Cao is not. However, the
ethical issues dogging William “Cold Cash” Jefferson gave Cao a once in a
lifetime opportunity to flip the seat—and he was precisely the transcendent candidate
to do it.
question throughout MCGTW is whether
or not Cao can hold his seat against a relatively untarnished Democrat (if one
can be found in the Crescent City).
Unfortunately, most viewers already know the answer, undercutting the
suspense, but also preparing them for the inevitable crushing disappointment.
and film editor Matthew Martin arduously walk a political tight-rope, trying to
frame Cao to be as appetizing as possible to left-of-center film critics. Much is made of Cao’s relative liberalism
within the Republican caucus, including many laments that he might be better
suited to the other party. Yet, Cao
remains staunchly pro-life throughout his term of office, so so much for that
idea. Frankly, Cao had no complaints
with his Republican colleagues, getting more than his share of their earmarks
for his ungrateful district. Conversely,
the figure who emerges in Chiang’s doc as the poster boy for political
hypocrisy and opportunism is none other than the current (but perhaps not long
term) occupant of the Oval Office.
wooed by Obama, Cao genuinely believed the President’s pretenses of
friendship. Indeed, Cao took a lot of
heat voting for the House’s first Obamacare bill. However, when Obama inevitably cuts a
commercial for his Democrat opponent (a less than inspiring figure with a
history of disbarments and barroom brawling), it is profoundly disillusioning
for Cao. Indeed, for all the film’s
attempts to distinguish Cao from the national GOP, time and again it is the
Democrats (both nationally and in New Orleans) who refuse to look past party
labels and racial identity. To their
credit, Chiang and his team show this quite clearly.
MCGTW is so intent on presenting Cao
in non-partisan terms, it declines to correct a few inaccuracies. While Cao was the only Asian American
Republican in Congress at the time of his election, he was eventually joined by
Charles Djou, the first Thai American congressman, who won a special election
in Hawaii (but was subsequently defeated in 2010, like Cao). Perhaps more problematically, MCGTW lets a local provocateur’s incendiary
racial attacks on the GOP stand unchallenged.
Still, it illustrates the sort of rhetoric Cao faced from some
most importantly, MCGTW always treats
Cao fairly, recognizing his earnestness and integrity. He is clearly the real Horatio Alger deal,
with the attractive wife and cute kids perfectly suited for campaign
brochures. Watching his re-election
campaign unfold will be a frustrating experience for viewers of most political
stripes. If anything, it suggests the
greatest problem with the current political system is not money or PACs, but
the voters themselves.
is a real downer of a Pogo-like message,
isn’t it? Still, Cao’s frank, vigorous
spirit is quite refreshing. After viewing
MCGTW, one hopes for a sequel with a
more satisfying ending. Clearly, Cao is talented man and Chiang has a
keen understanding of the community he represents. Considering the mildness of its biases, the
mostly fair and responsible Mr. Cao Goes
to Washington is recommended for political junkies on both sides of the
aisle, particularly those who following events in New Orleans from a distance,
when it screens this Thursday (7/26) at the Chelsea Clearview as an official
selection of the 2012 AAIFF.
Labels: AAIFF '12, Documentary, Joseph Cao, New Orleans