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From the DVD Shelf: The War Room (1993)

April 13th, 2012
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After watching Game Change (click here for my review), I was in the mood for another political film, so I decided to check out the handsome new Criterion Collection blu-ray release of The War Room. This 1993 documentary, directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, chronicles Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign.  Specifically, the film focuses on the campaign’s “war room” in Arkansas, headed by Lead Strategist James Carville and Communications Director George Stephanopoulos.

The War Room is an unusual documentary in that there is no narration, and no effort is made to label (with a caption or chiron) or otherwise identify any of the characters on screen.  Some clever editing (of news footage, newspaper headlines, etc.) in the opening minutes provides some back-story and context (giving the viewer a hot-knife-through-butter run-through of Clinton’s victories in the Democratic primaries) and then the film settles into a fly-on-the-wall approach.  Much of the footage in the documentary was filmed in the campaign’s war room in Little Rock, and with a you-are-there approach the filmmakers drop the viewer into the campaign HQ to watch events unfold.

It’s a fascinating approach.  There were certainly occasions when I would have appreciated the occasional extra bit of explanation or identification of a character on screen.  I’m fairly well-versed politically, and I certainly recognized Mr. Carville and Mr. Stephanopoulos, as well as Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers, Mary Matalin, and others, but there were plenty of other characters who we see on-screen who I didn’t know, and I would have loved for them to have been identified.  On the other-hand, the fly-on-the-wall approach is very visceral and immersive.  There’s something compelling in watching the campaign staff converse and joke and strategize together, without any obvious self-consciousness about being filmed.  It feels alluringly intrusive somehow, like we’re watching something we’re not meant to see.

The filmmakers weren’t given access to Bill Clinton, which forced them to focus on his campaign staff instead, but you don’t miss his presence.  For the one thing, the film is put together in such a way  that what snippets the filmmakers did have of Mr. Clinton are well-integrated into the finished film.  (I’m not sure, though, how they managed to get the candid shots of Mr. Clinton on the phone in a t-shirt that open the film…!)  And for another, Mr. Carville  and Mr. Stephanopoulos are fascinating enough characters that they more than carry the focus of the proceedings.  It’s a hoot to watch them work.  There’s an extended sequence when the campaign staff think they have footage that proves that the Bush campaign was spending money to print Bush/Quayle signs outside of the UUnited States.  That particular political story winds up going nowhere, but watching Carville, Stephanopoulos and co. make hay, that long afternoon, out of the prospect of having a new arrow in their quiver against the Bush Campaign is a riot.  I also loved the sequence when you see the team on the speaker-phone with a woman who was working on their campaign ads, working together to shape a particular spot.  These moments are funny, fascinating, and very human.

What I missed from the documentary, watching it twenty years after it was made, was more of a sense of context.  Write-ups of this film trump The War Room as shining a light on the campaign that changed the way campaigns were run.  But watching the film, it’s hard to suss out what exactly was so different and innovative about Mr. Carville and Mr. Stephanopoulos’ operation.  But that’s where the wonderfully robust special features on this Criterion Collection come in.  The film is overflowing with additional footage, new and old, that sheds a lot of light on the campaign itself and the logistics behind the making of the movie.  There’s even a complete follow-up documentary, Return of the War Room, from 2008, which I found really shed light on that issue of context.

It’s hard to believe that the Clinton/Bush Presidential race was twenty years ago.  The War Room shines a fascinating light on the politics of that campaign.  The film is a bit inside baseball, but any political junkies out there will eat it up.

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