A quadriplegic at the tender age of 19, the current mayor of Vancouver “killed Sam and became someone else” as he began to cope with the reality of all manner of impairments and deficits. Like so many who have sustained a catastrophic injury (spinal cord and acquired brain injuries), life begins again. They can never be the person they were before.
Joe Moulins’ Citizen Sam revolves around the 2005 civic election, but the outcome is the smallest part of the story (except for chief rival Jim Green’s constant condemnation of Sullivan’s error in judgment of giving crack to an East-side constituent and his, apparent conservatism). The film’s strength stems from Sullivan’s courage in allowing the camera into his bed, bathroom and constant uncertainty. Most of the world pities the injured, but few venture into their shoes. Oh sure, the disabled have made great, er, strides in the arenas of pensions, accessibility to transit and property, but, except in rare circumstances—such as this remarkable, democratic exercise—are at best tolerated rather than embraced by mainstream society. Even those with relatively “mild” impairments (not to them of course) such as stuttering (cross-reference below) will never be fully accepted as equals by the majority who abhor anything beyond their perception of “normal.”
Team Sullivan is anchored by life partner, Lynn Zanatta (they were sweethearts pre-injury, defying the even greater odds of continuing their relationship: many others throw in the towel with the devastating knowledge that he/she is not the person they were). Still, don’t we all change in one way or another over the course of time? Tireless, devoted and good natured, she’s just as responsible for the electoral success as the voters, showing yet again the value of a coach that can roll with the punches.
As the campaign initially lumbers then sprints along to the finish, Sullivan frequently speaks into the camera solo, sharing his anxiety and worries from having to re-write a speech penned by his mother (Freud would have loved that) to the disaster of a bad poll. Even after victory he wonders “Do I really want this job?” Be careful what you wish for. And, having survived the “here’s some crack cocaine for dessert” scandal, he realizes that “I have to be very, very vigorously clean.” Yet anyone who has a swig of scotch after breakfast and does that on camera seems at once to be both human and trustworthy.
In the film’s early going, composer Cameron Wilson opts for a bone-thin (budget!) version of Saints-Saens’ Danse Macabre to reinforce the incredible dance with which Sullivan must content himself to engage in—like a wheelchair ball—and the slimy, near-sinister lengths his opposition (both physical: imagine having to dress every day with severely compromised limbs, and political: following a final radio debate, Green sulks out of the studio looking defeated, his dreams just as dashed as Sullivan’s were) will take to thwart the four-term councillor’s ambition.
The height of irony comes from the Hotel Vancouver’s inaccessible washroom. In the excitement of the moment, candidate Sullivan has to pee and the venerable, upscale landmark is unable to accede to his need. Management had best hope that following his Worship’s political career, he doesn’t opt to try his hand and indefatigable determination in the hostelry business. JWR