Mr. Cao Goes to Washington is a documentary about Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese American elected to congress. After originally studying to be a Roman Catholic priest and later becoming an immigration attorney, Cao ultimately decided that he could have more of a positive impact in politics. Cao ran for US Representative of his district in New Orleans when the democratic incumbent was under indictment. Despite Cao’s largely left-leaning views, he affiliated himself with the Republican party, due to his adamant pro-life position. Given the political turmoil of the time, the white Republican residents of the district saw a rare opportunity to unseat a Democrat and rallied behind Cao. Although the district was African-American and historically extremely Democratic, Cao won the election handily, as voters had become disenfranchised and wanted change.
Shortly after taking office, Cao became the only Republican member of congress to vote in favor of an initial draft of the Obama health care reform bill, infuriating the other Republicans. Later, when the revised bill came back from the Senate, Cao voted against the bill, citing fears about federal funding being used for abortions, infuriating the Democrats and President Obama. The remainder of the movie deals with his difficult and ultimately ill-fated re-election campaign as he struggled to maintain his office with few allies or supporters.
Your first reaction to this film will be simply to laugh at Joseph Cao. His naiveté is truly mystifying, and some of the things he says are just tragically hilarious. (For example: He keeps a note from Obama welcoming him to Washington — which I’m sure is sent to all new members of congress — framed on his wall, and frequently refers to it as evidence of their legitimate friendship.) As the film progresses, however, you come to realize that there is something more meaningful behind his greenness: a true Washington outsider, Cao may be the only man in congress that actually votes and acts on his conscience. He honestly sees no reason to play political games or to vote strategically, and the tragedy comes when we realize that there is simply no place for a man like that in our current political system.
The documentary lens of this film is highly successful. The portrayal of Cao is at once unflattering and sympathetic. We see his many faults, but we also see his considerable assets. As a viewer, you will certainly find yourself laughing cruelly at some of the things that Cao says and does, but just as often you will find yourself wanting to protect him from the harshness of our government, harshness that Cao often appears to be blissfully ignorant of. The film says just as much about all of us and what we have come to expect from our elected officials as it does about this one individual man. Overall, the film is fair and honest, and as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.