‘The Swamp’ looks at political reform through the eyes of an unlikely hero: Rep. Matt Gaetz
“If you come up here to visit, there’s scaffolding on [the Capitol building] all the time and it looks like it’s being worked on, but it’s fully functional and it can destroy happiness and life anywhere. What I’m doing up here is looking for the one weakness in the Death Star — but sometimes I wind up in the trash compactor.” Massie, who earned the nickname “Mr. No” for his propensity to vote nay even against his party’s line (he says he does this only a quarter of the time, on average), revels in being a contrarian, which is entertaining. Yet “The Swamp” never makes a case that his rebelliousness has achieved much for his constituents.
DiMauro and Pehme — whose previous work includes a Netflix documentary about Trump adviser Roger Stone — stick closely to just a few of the core principles held by Gaetz, Massie and Buck, while disregarding their less savory opinions, foibles and any other aspect that could interfere with the reform narrative. Such principles sometimes put these congressmen in the same corner as like-minded Democrats, sharing an aversion to starting new wars as well as ideas about campaign finance reform and term limits.
The “where to begin” aspect of fixing Washington is as much a hurdle for the film as it is for the representatives, while the history of partisan gridlock and big-money influence is more easily traced to the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won a long-sought majority. Seeding dissent between voters and widening the rift between conservatives and liberals turned out to be a powerful moneymaker and a point of no return for both parties — “the perpetual campaign,” says Harvard professor and government reform advocate Lawrence Lessig.
Impeachment proceedings against Trump become a shiny object for everyone involved, including the filmmakers, who can’t resist the drama — perhaps proving another point about why our leaders and representatives are able to concentrate on only one big thing at a time.
Gaetz goes to dinner at Capitol Hill’s Trattoria Alberto with an unlikely friend — former congresswoman Katie Hill, a California Democrat who resigned last November after admitting she had an affair with a campaign staffer and the surfacing of private photos she deemed an act of “revenge porn.”
Gaetz is curious about a campaign-finance reform proposal before the House that would help get money out of politics, in which the government would match small, grass-roots donations by a factor of five, eliminating the need for large donors. He confesses to Hill that he can’t get his head around what he perceives as government handouts (“Welfare for politicians,” he says), which she counters, because the idea still puts the responsibility for fundraising on the candidates — while limiting corporate influence. It’s a fascinating moment that “The Swamp” captures, the barest hint of a lightbulb of awareness breaking through Gaetz’s stubborn head.
Soon Gaetz is seen publicly vowing to stop taking PAC contributions — the first Republican in Congress to do so. “The Swamp’s” parting message seems clear enough: If you want to fix Washington, first fix yourself.