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MOVIE REVIEW

Two unflinching takes on 2004 races

Warts-and-all quixotic quest keeps the faith

Frank Capra couldn't be farther gone. We live in a United States where elections are for sale and "American Idol" contestants garner more votes (albeit unlimited and phoned in) than presidential candidates. Our future belongs to a dazzle-me generation whose pathetic anthem is John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change."

If that about sums up your jaded view of modern American politics, then say hello to Jeff Smith, a stubbornly enthusiastic Midwesterner who might restore your faith in democracy for 82 minutes of movie watching, whether or not he wins you over permanently.

Smith's hard-fought 2004 congressional campaign is what's at the heart of "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?," a rousing, sometimes funny, frequently depressing documentary that obviously spins its title from the Capra-directed 1939 drama, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Most viewers fondly remember the original Hollywood fiction, which cast Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic everyman named Jefferson Smith, who is thrust into the eye-opening role of statesman and crusader. Slightly less melodramatic but equally opinionated, the current real-life chronicle directed by Frank Popper ("The Lounge People") shows what it's like to be a progressive outsider attempting to sound a rallying call for a fight that seems nearly unwinnable.

With cameras along for the ride, Smith, a 29-year-old Missouri activist and teacher with no elective experience, decides to pursue the US House seat vacated by Dick Gephardt's retirement. He assembles a low-budget staff of similarly untested newcomers, then jumps into a crowded pool of candidates that includes both the robotic son of a powerful political family (Russ Carnahan) and another Smith (Mark) with a bigger resume. To many, Jeff Smith seems intelligent, sincere, eloquent, and committed. But others see an unproven risk the Democratic Party can't afford to take, compounded by the fact that he's too short, too boyish looking, and speaks with a high-pitched lisp.

The grass - roots movement that rises up to make Jeff Smith a top contender is enormously impressive, as is the even handed way that Popper portrays this sometimes naive collection of youthful staff and volunteers. Door-to-door and via phone, coffees, lawn signs, direct mail, and the endorsement of Howard Dean, they nearly upend the status quo, even though all along the way they show their immaturity, too.

It's the unfiltered combination of these elements that makes Popper's "Mr. Smith" so fascinating and credible. And whether or not you know the outcome of this election going in, you come away believing that even if Mr. Smith can't get all the way to Washington, he can still raise a shout that will.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

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