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Not Much of Consequence In New Kerry Documentary

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Inside the Bubble,” the new documentary that promises “a front-row seat inside the biggest story of 2004,” is how little of consequence from Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign it actually captures.

That said, watching “a disorganized, contentious, self-absorbed team” (in the words and spelling of a publicity release hyping the film) of Kerry campaign aides curse, quip and prank their way through the final days of last year’s presidential election is compelling, much like a car crash you can’t turn away from.

With 14 days to go before Election Day, Kerry “press wrangler” Jim Loftus is obsessed with — naturally — securing a live pony (as a birthday surprise) to tie to fellow campaign aide Marvin Nicholson’s hotel room bed. Thanks to some less-than-stellar advance work, Nicholson ends up with, instead, an anatomically correct blow-up sheep doll, otherwise known as “Your Very Own Lovin’ Lamb.”

Then there’s Loftus having a meltdown over an unflattering Kerry photo, which had run on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. “Look at the f–king picture!” he screams. And don’t forget the high drama of Nicholson making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Kerry and pretending to lick the knife. Ick.

But wait, there’s more.

“Media Czar” Stephanie Cutter, the campaign’s communications director, yawns, chats on her mobile phone, primps and plays with her hair. Driving through the Appalachian Mountains she quips: “I think I might find myself a husband here.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is shown rolling her eyes at one of President Bush’s responses during a debate, while Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) lets loose a profanity-laden diatribe directed at a scrum of scribes.

“Who gives a godd–n how you respond? he bellows. “Who gives a s–t whether you think, or anybody thinks, they are going to stick to a message?”

Aside from footage of his campaign appearances, Kerry himself is more peripheral to the film. His big moment comes in a locker room, where he sits waiting to tape interviews. To pass time, he starts to ask and answer potential questions of himself, before lapsing into Italian.

This is a far cry from the strategy brainstorming of “The War Room,” the acclaimed D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus documentary about the people who masterminded Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential win — a criticism the Kerry film’s director, Steve Rosenbaum, a Democrat, appears sensitive to.

“It was not for a lack of trying,” Rosenbaum said during an interview last week. “We probably said maybe 200 times: Can we see Mary Beth [Cahill] hang out with [John] Sasso? Can we be with the Senator when he talks strategy with [Bob] Shrum?”

The answer was no, though Rosenbaum, whose earlier credits include the six-episode Discovery Times Channel series “Staffers” (which both Nicholson and Loftus appeared in), defends his results, saying: “We are seeing all the people operating the campaign and seeing the result of the strategy.” (As for filming the Bushes, “there wasn’t a way to have a dialogue with them,” Rosenbaum said matter-of-factly.)

To address the lack of Democratic observers willing to criticize the Kerry operation on camera, Rosenbaum interpolates Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair columnist, throughout the film, to offer commentary on the campaign’s shortcomings.

“Twenty-five people said the same things to me,” Rosenbaum said, adding that no one wanted “to be on the record saying anything critical about anything.”

For their part, former campaign aides in the film, some of whom work on Capitol Hill, were dismissive of the project.

“Beyond our immediate families I don’t know who will watch recycled footage of our sleep-deprived existence, but you can sympathize with a film producer struggling to peddle a white elephant,” e-mailed Kerry spokesman David Wade, who appears briefly in the film, most notably quipping that the campaign should set up a “singles network for all the wackos who e-mail us and call us.”

In fact, the only other market for such a film, Wade continued, would be “pocket-protector-wearing College Democrats” on a Sunday night.

As for Kerry, he hadn’t seen the film as of last week. “Is it running here? How would he see it?” Wade said. (According to Rosenbaum, however, some of the Kerry aides featured in the documentary requested to see the film before it was released — an idea Rosenbaum nixed.)

Meanwhile, other former Kerry campaign staffers were laying low. By press time, Nicholson, who, along with Wade, still works for Kerry in his Senate office, did not return a call seeking comment. Neither did Cutter, who is back at Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) press shop, where she previously worked — though she did e-mail to say that she hasn’t seen the film.

They may be hoping it will all just go away. After all, as of last week, there was no distribution deal for the 82-minute film, which premiered Thursday at the New York Television Festival, though Amy Sabo, who is handling media for the documentary, said “multiple offers” are pending.

Ultimately, both the film and its stars appear to be grasping for direction. As the credits roll, Loftus jokes about wanting to attack Bush. A group of campaign aides sings the National Anthem.

At one point in the film, Loftus is asked to explain what the campaign’s overarching purpose was. His response: “I don’t know what the hell it was. … I don’t know. That’s a problem.”