SCARECROW ON SEATTLE
I admit, I was Seattle Monorail Project Super Fan-I still have the "Free Ride Ticket" (first day: December 15, 2007!) magnet on my fridge. I was ready to get riled up all over again when I watched Grassroots, the real-life story of monorail champion Grant Cogswell's 2001 run for Seattle City Council, based on the book Zioncheck for President by Cogswell's campaign manager Phil Campbell. Jason Biggs plays Phil, a recently fired journalist and good friend to Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), a semi-employed writer with an extreme way of expressing his civic views (like wearing a polar bear suit and getting the city's seal tattooed on his arm). His current cause is the monorail, which he sees as an environmental and social justice project that would transform the city into an urban utopia. While perhaps suffering delusions of grandeur, Cogswell decides to run for City Council against incumbent Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) with Phil providing much needed stability and leadership. As the campaign unfolds, Cogswell draws in voters with an energy and attitude more akin to renegade protesters than those seeking formal political office. He's also prone to random (and often profanity-laced) proselytizing, at one point telling Phil to "hold back my hair while I spew truth!" His fervor inspires many but does repel a few, including Phil's girlfriend Emily (Lauren Ambrose), and the couple has several increasingly serious "You're picking this lunatic over me?" conversations.
Like Battle in Seattle, the film brings a local political event to a larger audience. But unlike Battle, director Steven Gyllenhaal (Jake and Maggie's dad) stayed out of Vancouver and shot it all here. The current Seattle Center-to-Westlake monorail is practically a co-star, with multiple shots of it gliding nobly above Fifth Avenue. Phil and an ever-increasing amount of volunteers reside in a rambling house somewhere near Fairview in the Denny Triangle. The Comet Tavern transforms into a coffeehouse/campaign headquarters, while Re-bar hosts their election soirees thanks to a supportive proprietor (Tom Arnold). We get a glimpse inside both The Stranger and Seattle Weekly offices and several local eateries like the 5 Spot on Queen Anne. Among the local talent are Sean Nelson, the Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, and KOMO's Steve Pool, who delivers the heartbreaking news that Cogswell has lost the race.
Grassroots doesn't scoff at Cogswell for his idealism, nor does it outright endorse his platform the way Battle championed the WTO protesters. It's a smaller human story that speaks to larger truths about personal passions and public politics. I found it oddly inspiring, but my mass transit bitterness did finally spike at the end. After pictures and updates on the real people in the film (Cogswell went on to write Cthulhu and now owns a bookstore in Mexico City), a title card lets non-Emerald City residents know that our monorail is "still a dream." The credits roll with shots of other monorails transporting commuters in cities around the world. I think about those credits every time I'm waiting to turn on to Mercer from Elliott Avenue.
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