‘Grassroots’ retells a very Seattle story of politics

  • Wed Jun 20th, 2012 6:51pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

“Grassroots” chronicles a very unlikely political campaign that really happened in Seattle in 2001, when an upstart, loudmouth activist challenged a long-sitting city councilman and some very long odds.

The activist was Grant Cogswell, who ran by emphasizing the potential of the Monorail as a way to solve traffic congestion. Cogswell’s campaign manager, Phil Campbell, wrote a book about the race, which served as the basis for this movie.

The film’s director, Stephen Gyllenhaal, has taken a smart approach to the material: Instead of giving the story a tidy gloss, he tries to capture the grass-rootsy flavor of the subject. And so the film is funny, awkward, passionate and overstated, by turns.

Campbell is played by Jason Biggs, who proves himself extremely adept when given a chance to step outside his “American Pie” role. When we first meet him, Campbell is being fired from his job as a writer at the Stranger, the alternative Seattle weekly, so he’s at loose ends and susceptible to the siren call of a quixotic quest.

Cogswell, played by Joel David Moore (from “Avatar”), is a tall, looming type who tends to say inappropriate things while shouting from a short distance. He’s got all the right ideas for how to solve civic problems, but all the wrong social skills (many of the film’s best moments involve shots of Campbell’s face as Cogswell barks out yet another clumsy statement).

Their target is a veteran politico, Richard McIver (nicely played by Cedric the Entertainer). Cogswell thinks McIver is too cozy with the status quo, but the truly infuriating thing is that McIver turns out to be a decent guy. It’d be much easier to run against a jerk.

The movie careens around a single political season, briefly interrupted by the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, in which Cogswell’s joke of a campaign (nobody shows up for their first press conference) gradually begins to build steam.

The treatment here is unabashedly on the side of the misfit idealists; it’s possible “Grassroots” would be a better movie with a couple of grains of salt in its recipe. But its spirit feels authentic.

Gyllenhaal (a veteran filmmaker and father of actors Maggie and Jake) submerges the picture in location shooting, which is a relief after seeing countless local stories filmed in British Columbia.

Many of the scenes are shot in easily recognizable Seattle locations, which only underscores the campaign’s idealistic goal of keeping it real.


A chronicle of an unlikely campaign for Seattle city council in 2001, based on a true story. Maladroit activist Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore) runs against a longtime incumbent, while his campaign manager (Jason Biggs) tries to keep his candidate in check. It’s an idealistic cause that the movie unabashedly aligns itself with.

Rated: R for language, subject matter.

Showing: Harvard Exit.