At this point, no satire of American politics could top the spin-driven comic fraudulence of the real thing. A Perfect Candidate, a deviously entertaining fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Oliver North-Chuck Robb Virginia senatorial contest of 1994, captures the circus of modern image politics pushed to the breaking point. North, the American ''hero,'' enters the race with enough bullying bravado to make Ross Perot look like a wallflower; his Republican followers greet him as a savior, a swashbuckling mirror of their previous demigod, Ronald Reagan. By contrast, North's opponent, the Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb, is a mealymouthed bureaucrat who operates with the kind of transparently phony people skills that make you wonder how he got elected in the first place. Robb wears a perpetual frown of calculation and has to endure the humiliation of his own personal bimbogate (a hotel-room rendezvous with former Miss Virginia Tai Collins).
The producer/director team of R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor offer pungent details of a contest in which both the candidates and their managers are like snakes gorging on their own tails. North's chief strategist, Mark Goodin, a yuppie graduate of the Lee Atwater dirty-tricks school, plots his pranks with such brazen frat-house zeal that there's something almost innocent about him. (He takes after his boss, who, at one point, lyingly accuses Robb of wearing a Confederate tie.) The movie's punchline is that there is, after all, a lesser of two evils: Robb may be few people's idea of a good senator, but North, with his slick, embattled, guns-and-apple-pie smarminess, gives off the unmistakable stench of demagoguery. By the end, his defeat at the hands of a far weaker (and therefore less dangerous) rival allows you to savor the rare taste of poetic justice in politics. A-