Published May 02, 2017Luke Walker's PACmen is an effective, if slight, look at the inner workings behind Dr. Ben Carson's failed presidential bid. The film is as workmanlike as political documentaries in 2017 get, a "how the sausage is made" presentation that never transcends to something more meaningful. But for political junkies, it's an entertaining and brisk (at 82 minutes) overview of what went wrong during his campaign throughout 2015. All the while, Donald Trump looms large in the distance, ready to take over the Republican primaries.
Walker was granted access to two Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that financially backed Carson during his run for the nomination, and the film's immersion at fundraising meetings is impressive. Similar to last year's Weiner, Walker captures the mercuriality of political momentum and how hard it is to maintain, especially when your candidate keeps shooting himself in the foot. Carson made blunder after blunder, squandering the goodwill he built in the early part of his campaign. But unlike Weiner, PACmen lacks that film's incredible access to its subject, not spending enough time with Carson himself and instead following the power brokers who tried to get his campaign up and running. We're left at a distance, without a clear figure to follow, and it ends up hurting the film. There's only so many times we can sit in on a campaign meeting without knowing more about Carson, and the film doesn't make any sort of satisfying conclusion about who he is.
While PACmen lacks focus, its fly-on-the-wall approach to fundraising meetings and campaign stops works as a compelling slice of life. Walker over-relies on news footage, rather than his own crew, but the film succeeds almost in spite of itself, articulating the kind of alienation conservatives felt leading up to the 2016 election. Walker has a surprisingly empathetic eye for those who supported Carson, never depicting the rural Christian right groups with a mocking tone. A little more of this portraiture would have been welcome in Walker's documentary, another talking head or vignette from a ground-level volunteer perhaps, to sell this point convincingly. Still, Walker's approach is even-handed and avoids unintentional satire.
PACmen is no The War Room or Primary, still the gold standard for political campaign documentaries. And perhaps its arrival this late after Trump was named the Republican nominee and eventual election winner leaves the film feeling more like a curiosity or oddity than an essential look at American politics. Maybe a sequel, now that the inexperienced Carson has been named Housing Secretary, will prove more successful. As it stands, PACmen is worth seeing at this year's Hot Docs festival, but will leave some viewers wanting more.