A lively look at redistricting
Let’s get the biggest controversy out of the way first. Technically, “gerrymandering’’ should be pronounced with a hard “g,’’ since the word derives from the name of Elbridge Gerry (yup, hard “g’’), the Federal-era Massachusetts governor whose name got attached to the process of partisan political redistricting. The coinage is a combination of “Gerry’’ and “salamander,’’ which a proposed North Shore congressional district was said to resemble. That said, almost everybody in Jeff Reichert’s lively documentary pronounces it with a soft “g.’’ In pronunciation, as in politics, consensus is elusive.
Redistricting would seem about as filmable a subject as creating crossword puzzles (an activity it resembles). Yet through a combination of brisk editing, perky infographics, and genuine curiosity, Reichert keeps things moving.
Like “The China Syndrome’’ opening 12 days before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, “Gerrymandering’’ arrives with spot-on timing. The ’10 election results are just in. The official US Census figures come out next month. Redistricting for the ’10s commences next year.
The throughline for “Gerrymandering’’ is the campaign for a 2008 California ballot initiative, Proposition 11, which would put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission rather than legislators. This means Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gets a lot of talking-head time. So does the handiwork of his hair colorist. Even more time goes to Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause and chief proponent of the measure. She’s likable and compelling, if also humorless and blinkered in an AP civics sort of way. Politics for her has more in common with geometry than psychology.
Reichert has the good sense not to turn his movie into an AV presentation for Feng’s class. If anything he goes overboard. The zippy infographics are livelier than most attack ads (they even come with sound effects). After awhile, they come to seem almost as annoying.
“Gerrymandering’’ doesn’t have the look of that civics class but adopts it sensibility. In news footage, we see Obama, Reagan, Bush senior, Nixon, and Kennedy all decry redistricting. Almost all the talking heads decry it, too: activists, academics, politicians. Or, rather, term-limited ones (like Schwarzenegger) or retired ones, like former California governor Pete Wilson. “It brings out the worst in both parties,’’ Wilson says. “You have Democrats and Republicans agreeing on one thing: their own self-interest.’’
The documentary catalogs various gerrymandering outrages. Some of the district maps we see look like Rorschach auditions. US Representative Tom DeLay’s no-holds-barred revision of Texas’s congressional districts, in 2003, is in a class by itself. But “Gerrymandering’’ also takes for granted, with barely a dissenting voice, that the system itself is outrageous. A brief look at the redistricting of Obama’s Illinois Senate district in 2002 comes across as so much sound and fussiness signifying not much. The film’s basic premise — why can’t politics be a reasonable, logical enterprise (like, say, making an indie documentary?) — is at odds with the realities not just of the American political process but also human nature.
Iowa is held up as a model for fair, sensible redistricting. Two experts crunch the numbers after each Census and propose a new electoral map. Reichert interviews them, and they’re delightful guys. They’re also aware how demographically anomalous Iowa is, as several other talking heads note. America is not Iowa, and politics is not a civics class. The art of film is to take three dimensions and turn them into two for a couple of hours. The art of redistricting is to take three dimensions and turn them into two for ten years. Both enterprises are wildly complex. The art of “Gerrymandering’’ would have been enhanced by a feel for the even greater complexity of the art of its title subject.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.