‘American Gadfly’ Review: A Candid Candidacy

A victory lap for a campaign that never sought to win, the documentary “American Gadfly” goes a long way toward explaining Mike Gravel’s perplexing run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Gravel, the former two-term Alaska senator who pursued the 2008 nomination in earnest, and who died last year at 91, merely tried to qualify for the 2020 cycle’s debates. His run, which lasted for four months in 2019, was mainly the brainchild of two teenagers, David Oks and Henry Williams, who saw Gravel as a storied figure who wouldn’t prevail but could raise hell and push the political discussion leftward. Gravel sat on the sidelines and handed over his Twitter account.

“My real end goal has always been to have Bernie Sanders pick up our platform plank,” Williams says at a staff meeting in the movie. Later in the film, in June 2019, Williams says he hopes half the candidates, “possibly including us,” will soon drop out, so that voters can vet contenders with a chance. Casting Tim Ryan, Bill de Blasio and John Delaney as villains — while somewhat incongruously praising Marianne Williamson, who aided Gravel’s fund-raising efforts — the movie suggests that Gravel had more substance than better-publicized long shots.

The director, Skye Wallin, presents the correctness of Oks and Williams’s cause as a given. If you can get past that ingenuousness, “American Gadfly” is enjoyable as a chronicle of teenage idealism and its frustrations. (In Iowa, Oks bemoans the inefficiency of meeting and greeting voters.) Gravel, in his appearances, comes across as avuncular, eager to share ideas but even more eager to encourage young acolytes.

American Gadfly
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. Rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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