There's a remarkable moment in "Taking on the Kennedys" in which Kevin Vigilante, who's running in 1996 for Congress in Rhode Island against none other than Patrick Kennedy -- yes, one of THOSE Kennedys -- realizes how tough a skin you need in politics. Vigilante first has to beat an opponent in a Republican primary in order to face off against Kennedy, and he's just finished a televised debate with the woman. When he exits the TV station, he remarks in amazement to an aide, "She really HATES me."
It's as if he's finally grasped the fact that pure, unadulterated vitriol can be felt by another human being against you simply because you're running in an election. Perhaps that's the saddest -- and most deeply penetrating -- moment in this brisk little documentary. We have developed a political culture in which campaigns are nasty battles. Negative campaigning is not only expected, it's a test to see if you have the mettle to withstand the tough world of politics. As Vigilante discovers when he squares off in the general election against Kennedy, it isn't enough to run on the "issues." Personality, fund-raising and the ability to play nasty -- not to mention, in his case, the all-consuming question of name recognition -- are all part of the equation.
I was most impressed by how filmmaker Joshua Seftel gained a close and confident access to Vigilante during the campaign. His camera is there at the public events -- when both candidates are hustling for senior-citizen votes at a picnic -- but it's also there for some very private, relevatory moments as Vigilante gets fully immersed in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. If you think running for office is hard, try it when your opponent is waltzing around with one of the most famous political names in the world. It doesn't matter that Patrick Kennedy -- who is amiable but not exactly the brightest bulb in the glittering Kennedy clan -- is a mediocre candidate at best. He's got the name, and he's also got the money to run a blistering campaign. How Vigilante responds to that negativity is a fascinating examination of human nature. And yet one more reason to hit the mute button every time an attack ad is aired on TV.