Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New on Blu: "The War Room"

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full twenty years since a governor from Arkansas, best known for boring America to tears with a mercilessly lengthy speech at the 1988 Democratic convention, came from behind to win the Democratic nomination for president, and then the contest itself. But the anniversary of the Clinton campaign is worth noting—it was a period that changed the way elections were run and won, and the similarities between Clinton’s campaign and first term and that of Barack Obama are instructive (and occasionally eerie)—and has been duly contemplated, first in the excellent two-part American Experience documentary Clinton, and now in a fully-loaded Criterion edition of The War Room, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s masterful behind-the-curtain look at the campaign.

Pennebaker (who directed Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop, and photographed the first great campaign documentary, Robert Drew’s Primary) was one of the originators of “direct cinema,” and The War Room is true to that style: there is no narration, no talking heads, and no sense of past tense. It’s all in the present, unfolding in front of is as if we were (all together now) just a fly on the wall. This way of working has its admittedly minor drawbacks; though the speed-bumps hit by the campaign were fresh, familiar, and in no need of explanation when The War Room was released in 1993, it doesn’t hurt to do some re-familiarization with Gennifer Flowers, or the “draft letter,” or some of the other hiccups that are mostly just mentioned in passing. (Clinton, actually, would be a good place to start).

But if a comprehensive, detailed look at the entirety of Clinton ’92 is missed, the intimacy and access of what Hegedus and Pennebaker made is a more than worthwhile trade-off. Special features reveal that the filmmakers were initially hoping for a more traditional picture that would focus mostly on the candidate himself (and campaign manager David Wilhelm, who did not participate); when they were turned down, they decided to focus instead on the brains of the organization, lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos.

That decision proved an even bigger stroke of luck than Clinton’s eventual victory, since the manic, foul-mouthed Cajun and the smooth Rhodes scholar were not only compelling figures on their own, but had the chemistry of a great comedy team. They bounce off of each other beautifully, playing and enjoying their roles, but also display depths beyond their personality types; cutup Carville displays a heartfelt and moving emotional side in his last speech to the troops, while Carville’s phone conversation with a Perot operative just before the election shows just how steely and tough a figure lurked under that affable exterior.

By mostly staying in the so-called “war room” in Little Rock with Carville and Stephanopoulos, the film becomes less about the day-to-day grind of the campaign trail than theoretical discussions and attentiveness to detail. At the convention, a giant staff meeting comes to a standstill for a conversation about signs on the floor—should they be handmade? Should they worry about the inconsistency of the designs? During the campaign, messaging is ironed out to the tiniest word and inflection; Carville wants to create an ad responding to Bush I’s notorious “read my lips” pledge with a rejoinder to “read the record,” and the tagline goes through a good half-dozen iterations right in front of us. And the strategies of post-debate spin are devised and then implemented; we see Stephanopoulos telling the campaign surrogates, “Keep repeating ‘Bush was on the defensive’ all night,” and then we see him doing just that.

To the average, non-documentary viewer, this must sound about as exciting as watching paint dry. But to the political junkie, this is the visceral equivalent of a Michael Bay explosion-fest. The film is crisply assembled and simply executed (Clinton’s key victory in New York is seen solely with an electronic news message in Times Square), and the filmmakers’ inherent interest in unseen moments (like Clinton trying out different ties during his on-stage rehearsal time at the debate) results in several memorable images. They also provide a floor-level view of the convention—in one priceless shot, Stephanopoulos is seen exclaiming “I’m lost. I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go here!”—which is particularly valuable considering the intricate stagecraft involved in those events. Then again, the whole film performs that function for the “big show” of the modern political campaign.

In the years since its release, The War Room has superseded Primary as the definitive American campaign documentary; George Clooney reportedly showed it to his Ides of March cast and crew to show them how things work behind the scenes in a presidential campaign. However you feel about the administration that it brought about—and there are a wide variety of justifiable feelings about it—Hegedus and Pennebaker’s film captures the turning of a page in how politics are conducted, and Criterion’s excellent edition gives the film its best imaginable presentation, with a slew of fine bonus features.

"The War Room" is out on DVD and Blu-ray today from the Criterion Collection. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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