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Special to the Hoboken Film Festival 2008 : A Man Among Giants

A Man Among Giants is, on its face, a documentary about what happens when the ultimate little guy runs for political office.
Beneath that mask is a story beyond what you would expect from such a film.

Most political documentaries take as their subject a charismatic, inspirational candidate full of vitality and out to change the world for the better. Usually told from the underdog’s perspective for a better dramatic effect, win or lose, their story gives the viewer insight into the political process, and perhaps hope for what it can mean. In this case, there are flashes of charisma, energy, a kind of insight, and certainly a very “big” underdog. The rest is in the eye of the beholder.

Douglas “Tiny” Tunstall is a four-foot, seven-inch former professional wrestler, toy store elf, and Jerry Springer guest with a history of run-ins with the law, multiple aliases, and living on the government dole. He is also running for Mayor of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. As a Republican.

His story plays out like 2005’s Street Fight, but seen through a funhouse mirror. On Bizarro World. Street Fight’s protagonist, Cory Booker, is a knowledgeable, passionate, accomplished, good-looking man who attended Stanford (where he played football), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) and Yale Law. Tiny… well, he can talk a good game even if he’s not sure of the subject matter and he did wrestle a little in school. Booker is trying to unseat Mayor Sharpe James, an incumbent with decades of experience who will stop at nothing to get in Booker’s way. Tunstall must face Mayor James Doyle, an incumbent with decades of experience, against whom Tunstall will do almost nothing to get out of his own way.

In what has to be some of the most raw footage ever seen of a political candidate since Marion Barry’s FBI sting, filmmaker Rod Webber shows Tunstall at his best and, one would hope, at his worst. Yet there is the impression that “Tiny” doesn’t care. He can be charming but also brash, abrasive, even downright offensive with no discernible embarrassment. At one of his lowest points – drunk, nauseated, and sorrowful, literally and figuratively “empty inside” – he suddenly, as if flipping a switch, seems to become an indomitable world-beater. In any given scenario, it’s unclear which Tiny we’re going to get. Even on Election Night, as the polls are closing and he stops by opponent Doyle’s headquarters, it’s unclear whether he’s looking for a fight or just some free grub.

Along the way, this campaign also gives a taste of what it’s like to be one of the metaphorical “little people” trying to break into politics. Take away all of the things that make Tiny “Tiny” and you still have a story about an under-funded inexperienced candidate trying to overcome a well-meaning campaign manager that has a hard time remembering his name, an indifferent media, no real marketing savvy (he can’t see the linguistic beauty of the one rare marketing triumph, a slogan that says “Think Big, Vote Tiny”), and an unfocused platform. In our current political climate where everything is polished to the point of plasticity, Tunstall’s campaign is unvarnished.

Somehow, this odd little man, with his half-formed policy ideas and his misshapen sense of politics, connects with people. Not all, for sure, but some. With no real media budget, he takes his pressing of the flesh tours to areas of town, and to constituents, that would generally be overlooked and underappreciated. Just like Tiny. His constituency is the socio-political equivalent of a Tod Browning cast: the forgotten, the downtrodden, the outcasts - some would say, the “freaks”. But will they see Tiny as “one of us” come Election Day?

Ultimately, warts and all, he is strangely compelling. His campaign is a car crash and we are gawking rubberneckers. In the end, Tunstall shows the truth to the cliché that life is about the journey, not the destination and that, sometimes, even a loser can be a winner.

An unfinished version of A Man Among Giants won the Choice Award at Rough Cutz 2007. The completed cut has its world premiere at the Hoboken Film Festival tonight.

- Todd Cioffi


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