The footage is from Election Day, 2008. Chief Strategist David Axelrod is worried. Their campaign has gone well, and all signs point to a historic win, but you never know what could happen when people go into that voting booth. He acknowledges this, making phone calls to people out in the field (but admitting that “nobody actually knows anything”). But he finally decides to shrug it off. After all, he reasons, “with a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama, how could you lose?”The fact of the matter is, no matter what your political stance, few political campaigns in our recent history have been as dramatic as that of President Barack Obama, who overcame a fierce primary battle, an ugly general election campaign, and, yes, that name, to become America’s first African-American president. By The People: The Election of Barack Obama is a compelling account of that campaign, but an imperfect one; the access granted to the filmmakers is astonishing, but some of their structural decisions are somewhat inexplicable.
The film begins two years earlier, on another election night: the 2006 midterms, when Democrats took over both houses of Congress. “I love elections. They’re so much fun,” grins then-Senator Obama. “It’s even more fun when you’re not on the ballot.” The camera catches him calling to congratulate Nancy Pelosi (“Hey, congratulations, Madame Speaker”), then zips ahead to April of 2007, after Obama has announced his candidacy and has set up operations in Iowa for the first primary caucus.
But what is done with that access? In the first half of the film, a great deal—it is, indeed, a blow-by-blow account of the run-up to that vital first victory in Iowa. We get to know the people behind the scenes, from those faces we’ve seen—like Axelrod, matter-of-fact communications director Robert Gibbs (and his adorable kid), and campaign manager David Plouffe—to the workers humping it on the ground. The youth of the campaign staff is staggering; guys like speechwriter Jon Favreau and Iowa press secretary Tommy Vietor look like children (“posing for a picture with volunteers, Obama asks with a grin, “Are any of these people over 30?”). Campaign staffer and first-generation Korean-American Ronnie Cho provides much of the heart of the film, telling his story to the cameras and letting them catch him with his guard down during emotional phone calls to his mother.
“I want to win it for those kids,” Obama tells Plouffe (who relays it to the staff), and the thing that By The People gets right, more than anything else, is the emotional stake that Obama’s supporters had in his success. It’s an emotional thing, this campaign—not just because of the historic nature of his candidacy (though that certainly plays a part), but because of the inspirational qualities of the man himself. The passion of his staff and supporters was certainly a major factor in his electoral success.
The trouble is, it wasn’t the only factor. We occasionally get behind closed doors to dissect the campaign, but not often enough. Obama’s primary win wasn’t just about emotion or “momentum” (God, I’d forgotten how bludgeoned we all were by that word back in 2008), but about smart strategists who the rules of the primary voting and how to play them (Clinton strategist Mark Penn reportedly didn’t even understand the primary’s proportional representation process), and we don’t get a sense of that.
Organization of the material also appears to be a problem; after spending nearly an hour on the run-up to Iowa, the filmmakers seem to realize they’ve got an epic on their hands and skip important events in the second half to keep the running time under the two-hour mark. We hit the high points, the real-life dramatic twists and turns (the “pastor problem,” the Palin bounce, the economic downturn), but they’re dispatched too speedily, and other important moments (like the important North Carolina primary victory after the Wright kerfluffle) are missed. Most bewilderingly, the filmmakers skip from his securing of the nomination in June to the final night of the Democratic National Convention in late August, missing not only the selection of Joe Biden as running mate, but the protracted battle to secure the support of Clinton and her voters (staged for maximum impact early at the DNC).
Much of that is absent, and missed, and who knows—maybe these events are just too fresh in the mind of this political junkie, and as the years past, their exclusions won’t seem so glaring. And, in spite of those flaws, there is still some great footage here. Gibbs in March, presciently guessing exactly what Clinton will do in the months ahead. Obama putting in a call to “Toot,” his maternal grandmother who raised him. Obama overheard predicting the Republican strategy to correspondent Richard Wolffe (“They’re going to make me into a scary guy”). Gibbs, overcome backstage at the convention acceptance speech. The candidate in debate prep. The extraordinary moment on election eve, when Obama speaks emotionally of “quiet heroes” like his grandmother, who died that morning. And the Iowa caucus, the culmination of so much hard work, beautifully constructed and exciting. As a general rule, in fact, the editing is outstanding—fast, sharp, and involving. You just wish they’d made some different editorial choices.
“Good Lord,” Representative James Clyburn mutters, as he walks into his packed polling place on Election Day. If nothing else, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama captures, in vivid detail, the momentous feeling of that Tuesday in November of 2008, when it seemed that anything was possible. A year later, those hopes and dreams have been softened by the crushing reality of “doing business in Washington.” All the hard work and all of the tears that put Obama into the White House are captured here, for all eternity, and though the film makes some mistakes, it does that right. That part is important. That’s the part that he shouldn’t forget.