There’s a scene in the new Showtime documentary series The Circus where John Kasich is holding a town hall meeting on a snowy morning in New Hampshire. There are about 40 people present for the event, including media, because the snow is bad enough that the schools are closed in New Hampshire. Kasich is rambling and kind of goofy and gives no indication that he is about to blow up the Republican primary campaign by finishing a strong second to Donald Trump. The scene—the entire gestalt of the Kasich experience—is captured perfectly. And I can tell you this because I was there, sitting about 24 inches behind Showtime’s cameras, covering the campaign for the magazine where I work.
The brainchild of reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and political consultant Mark McKinnon, The Circus is a fast-moving documentary series about the 2016 race for the White House. Watching it, I felt like a gynecologist looking at pornography: That is, I was seeing a subject with which I am professionally intimate rendered through a commercial medium for the purposes of entertainment. It was kind of weird.
Yet I didn’t feel dirty, because Halperin, Heilemann, and McKinnon have created a very fine piece of documentary reporting. The Circus is funny and revealing. For instance, it turns out that Bernie Sanders likes to play a game called “monster” with his grandkids. When Heilemann asks him what his monster face looks like, Sanders shows him the monster and it kills. In another revealing moment, the correspondents are walking down a hallway with Chris Christie moments after the New Jersey governor has finished a TV hit with CNBC’s Donnie Deutsch. During the interview, Deutsch tries hard to give Christie some campaign advice and Christie plays along gamely. Off-camera, Christie mutters darkly, “The only thing I’d engage in with Donnie is a murder-suicide pact.”
But the real virtue of The Circus isn’t that it’s funny. It’s that it’s true. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the kaleidoscope of the presidential race looks like up close, this is it. Other political documentaries, such as Mitt or The War Room (my vote for one of the greatest movie about politics, ever) give you a deep dive into a single campaign. The Circus is a worm’s eye view of the entire pageant of insanity.
There are the candidates themselves—some of whom are surprisingly human-like. Not just Sanders, who comes across as the most likable and admirable figure in the race, but Marco Rubio, who’s calm and at ease when talking with reporters behind the scenes, and Christie, who is the same guy both onstage and in the back of the house. Others seem more cyborg than humanoid. Hillary Clinton—whose appearance is limited to a single exchange with Halperin in a press gaggle—actually comes off as more robotic than you’d expect. Ditto Jeb Bush, who is almost a parody of a willfully on-message pol.
But there are also campaign strategists, such as Tad Devine and Todd Harris, who are interesting and compelling in their own rights. (A tip: If you’re ever at a dinner with a campaign strategist, sit next to them. As a class, they’re remarkably great talkers and conversationalists. It’s a professional requirement.)
And then there’s the media. In truth, the only time The Circus ever flags it is when the show forces Halperin, Heilemann, and McKinnon to sit down in a restaurant and talk about the media environment or the state of the race. For one thing, these are parts of the show that are contrivances and as such, they feel like an element from Cake Wars forced into the show by the network in order to “up the dramatic tension.” For another, reporters are the least interesting group of people involved in a presidential campaign. Trust me, I know.
But the reason reporters tend to puff themselves up is because they understand that when they cover a presidential campaign they’re witnessing one of the great miracles of human civilization—the mysterious and majestic ritual of democracy.
It is amazing that a country with 330 million people and more nuclear weapons than it knows what to do with chooses its leader by having its aspiring president drive around Iowa and New Hampshire to meet in barns and diners with small groups of voters who then ask them questions about anything and everything you can imagine. And it is nothing short of magical that this system, for all its flaws, actually sort of works.
What makes The Circus so wonderful is that it conveys this sense of wonder, this sense of magic, that you can’t help but feel when you’re on the ground watching a presidential campaign unfold. Even when you’re stuck with in a snowstorm with John Kasich.