Judge Mike Pinsky tells you sternly that you can't fight in here—this is The War Room.
"It is the most expensive single act of masturbation in the history of the world."—James Carville, on the 1992 presidential campaign
In 1960, Robert Drew changed the documentary form by slipping behind the scenes of the John F. Kennedy election machine, capturing for the first time the raw energy behind modern campaign spin and the influence of mass media on the political process. The film was called Primary. Curiously, apart from a few gonzo journalists, nobody in the media much picked up the ball and ran with it. Political campaigns were a secret world, so sacrosanct that Nixon's reelection shenanigans in 1972 (which culminated in the Watergate scandal) came across as a genuine surprise to most people.
Thirty-four years later, D.A. Pennebaker, who photographed Primary for Drew, dove back into the battle of election rhetoric. After all, 1992 saw the rise of the closest pretender to Kennedy's legacy since the death of brother Bobby: William Jefferson Clinton.
The War Room, Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's chronicle of the Clinton campaign, actually focuses very little on the candidate himself. Instead, the filmmakers are more interested in how a modern campaign packages its product for the voting masses. In choosing Clinton, Pennebaker and Hegedus had no idea that their subject would actually get elected and become one of the most popular and contentious presidents in generations. The Democratic field that election season was a madhouse. Actually, there were plenty of colorful figures on both sides—Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot—and likely any one of them might have served as a vivid center for a documentary. But in a film about campaigning, and not candidates, only one campaign would do—and one campaign team.
The real stars of The War Room are James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Carville, the "ragin' Cajun," is pure backwoods charisma, the side of Clinton that answered to "Bubba" and was not afraid to speak up or act even at the expense of tact. Stephanopoulos is Clinton's other side, the intellectual Rhodes Scholar who can remain levelheaded in any crisis. Of course, we know now how these two characters reflect the dual nature of Clinton's personality. But in 1993, when The War Room hit theaters, Carville and Stephanopoulos stood out as entirely new characters. Indeed, Carville gained such notoriety from the film, and from his other public appearances, that he inspired books and sitcoms, mostly due to his temper and his behind-the-scenes romance with Bush strategist Mary Matalin.
Unfortunately, The War Room has not aged as well as you might hope, even given its newfound relevance just after another contentious election season (and another Bush). We rarely get a chance to see any real strategizing going on in this so-called "war room." Instead, Carville and company mostly react to a seemingly insurmountable series of scandals that threaten to sink Clinton: adultery with Gennifer Flowers, controversy over Clinton's draft status, and so forth. And when we do see the campaign team try to counter—for example, trying to stir up a tempest surrounding the Bush campaign using a Brazilian print company instead of a domestic one—the strategies generally fizzle. So how did Clinton end up getting elected? Oddly, Carville and Stephanopoulos seem almost as mystified as the audience in the end.
Obviously, we know now that the campaign was much better organized than Pennebaker and Hegedus would have us believe by the evidence in the film—and Clinton was a much smoother candidate than we tend to see here. Part of the problem here is access, how much Carville and Stephanopoulos (who as media director of the campaign would have probably made the call on this) let the cameras see. There is a tentative feel to the film sometimes, even given its then-surprising revelations about how the game is played, even down to arguments about the typography on convention signs. I suppose different audiences can see the lesson of The War Room as it suits them. The Left will see how scrappy grassroots campaigning counters the Republican dirty tricks (and the cool efficiency of Mary Matalin, who comes across here as the villain). The Right will see how political spin and slippery personalities can sell questionable character to the voters.
In any case, you will not see much besides the film on the Universal DVD release. The image has been cropped from its 1.66:1 theatrical aspect to full frame, and the 16mm footage seems grainy and faded at times. No extras are included other than a five-minute introduction by married documentarians Pennebaker and Hegedus (not seen together for some reason), which is not nearly enough to cover the material.
All in all, if this DVD of The War Room were running for election, it would need a hell of a campaign team to score it a win. I am not sure even James Carville could make that happen.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus
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