Movies are often based on true stories. When a true story is based on a fictional movie, it’s a somewhat more special circumstance.
“Man with a Plan,” a 1996 independent mockumentary, is a special movie. Directed by John O’Brien, a Harvard-educated sheep farmer from Tunbridge, Vt., it’s one of the few genuinely notable examples of Vermont’s homegrown cinema: a local product in the truest sense, not only because it was shot in Vermont by a Vermonter but because the actors, too, were all locals, playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, within the setting that they actually inhabited. The work of O’Brien—half documentarian, half fabulist—is thus both quaint and avant-garde.
Nearly two decades after its release, “Man with a Plan” boasts only 118 votes on IMDb; in order to watch it, you have to buy a DVD copy from Vermont PBS, since you can’t rent it on Netflix. Even so, the film undeniably made an impact within its particular orbit. The comic tale of a fictional septuagenarian from Tunbridge named Fred Tuttle (played by an actual septuagenarian from Tunbridge named Fred Tuttle) who, with no political experience, decides to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, it inspired its real-life counterpart to launch a campaign for the same office in 1998. The real Tuttle won the Republican nomination and, before losing by a large margin to the Democrat Patrick Leahy (whom Tuttle himself voted for in the general election), gained a measure of national celebrity, including an appearance on Leno.
Here is a movie, then, that began with truth, stretched that truth to its breaking point, and then nearly became truth again.
The film presents itself, in ironic fashion, as a biography of a “great leader,” who, in this case, seems anything but. The fictional Fred Tuttle is an arthritic, debt-ridden widower who presides over a broken-down farm with his 94-year-old father, who can’t afford the hip operation he needs. At their age, neither of them can milk the cows anymore, which means that Fred needs a new job to raise money. Why not try Congress?
“Why not?” becomes one of Fred’s slogans. He has only a tenth-grade education and a vague grasp of the issues of the day, but he’s energetic for his age, and is in his own words “a pretty good fella, a pretty smart man.” He puts up signs, appears at county fairs, and drops flyers from an airplane. He has a thick northern New England accent and a modest wardrobe, but he also has charisma, and soon he’s catching up in the polls to the incumbent congressman, a bland career politician named Bill Blachly (played by an actual Vermont state senator named Bill Blachly).
Some writers have referred to “Man with a Plan” as a political satire, but O’Brien’s purpose here is never completely clear. Is this the heroic story of a virtuous “little guy” taking on the political establishment, like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” or is it the story of a vacuous society that accidentally promotes a simpleton to its highest rung, like “Being There”?
Fred Tuttle is immensely likable, but to the film’s credit, he’s never portrayed as a font of down home wisdom, and there’s very little reason to believe that he would make a good congressman: he freely admits that he’s in it for the money and would, as his first act in Washington, vote to raise his own pay. When he finally comes up with a platform for himself, it involves improving infrastructure and helping small farmers, but it also involves a plan to improve the environment by shooting garbage into outer space on rocket ships. O’Brien’s delight at Fred’s rise to “power,” then, is perhaps purely anarchic.
“Man with a Plan” is very funny, and it manages to be so without mocking its rural characters. These are not exaggeration-prone comedians, like the ones in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, playing eccentric hicks: they’re regular people, played by regular people, behaving in regular ways—apart from Fred himself, who is a regular guy but has, of course, set for himself an irregular goal. When Blachly hires a spy to dig up dirt on him, the spy simply goes directly to Fred, who unself-consciously confesses to drinking, marijuana use, and marital infidelity. When the first polls show that Fred has earned a sizable chunk of the public’s support, he tells an interviewer that he thinks it must have been a computer error.
“Man with a Plan” is also a surprisingly beautiful movie, despite its small budget. It isn’t glossy—it is central Vermont as it really looks in the fall, with plain, humble towns and farmhouses that could use some repairs. Its unstylized appreciation of the natural and human landscape is wonderful—and then, late in the film, with one particular sequence, in which a trio of white-clad faeries (actually women hired by Blachly to ensnare Fred in a scandalous “orgy”) encircles our blissful protagonist in an ambrosia-fueled hilltop dance, it unexpectedly enters the realm of dreams.
In 2015, Fred Tuttle’s real-life campaign has become, at best, a footnote in Vermont political history, yet like most great movies, “Man with a Plan” still feels oddly relevant—not only because Fred’s folksy manner recalls a few of the candidates from last year’s infamous gubernatorial debate in Colchester. In the movie, Fred Tuttle is 73 years old, and as it happens, another 73-year-old independent politician from Vermont launched a campaign in 2015 for one of Washington’s higher offices. Bernie Sanders’ platform is a little more about the economy, a little less about personal charm—even so, “Man without a Plan” might give you some hope, if you can track it down.