Thursday, October 30, 2014

Watch This: The War Room

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The War Room (1993)
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

With midterm elections coming up next week, many Americans are no doubt looking forward to being able to fulfill their civic duty by casting their votes for the candidate of their choice.  For many, this will also mean a much anticipated slackening in the onslaught of personal attacks targeted at said candidates.  With the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous social media feeding these attack campaigns, and what seems like a growing gap between politicians and the citizens they are supposed to represent, it's difficult not to become overwhelmed by the negativity and cynicism, and to forget that there was a time when local and national elections brought with them a sense of hope for positive change.  One such instance was the presidential election of 1992, when Arkansas governor Bill Clinton emerged as the Democratic frontrunner in opposition to Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.  Clinton was elected in a landslide victory as the first Democratic president in almost a generation, and much of his victory can be attributed to the work of his campaign staff, who helped Clinton overcome a sex scandal and galvanized record numbers of young voters.  This unconventional, game-changing campaign was chronicled by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker in their revealing and entertaining behind-closed-doors documentary, The War Room.

When Hegedus and Pennebaker initially set out to document Clinton's campaign, they were denied access to the candidate himself.  Consequently, they turned their focus to Clinton's chief campaign strategists, Campaign Manager James Carville and Director of Communications George Stephanopoulos.  One could easily argue that the lack of access to Clinton was fortuitous, because the resulting film is a compelling, buddy comedy-like portrait of two opposites, brought together by their shared idealism and belief in their cause.  Carville, nicknamed the "Ragin' Cajun," emerges as the film's real star, a charismatic, passionate, inspiring, witty, and sometimes profane strategist whose incisive dissection of key issues ("The economy, stupid!") keeps the staff focused.  Stephanopoulos is equally passionate and brilliant, but his comparatively low-keyed manner makes him a natural foil to the outspoken Carville.

As the film opens in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, Clinton is still one of many Democratic candidates, and we see the local campaign staff dealing with torn-down signs.  After Clinton has emerged as the frontrunner and added Al Gore as his Vice-Presidential candidate, we see the team debating about sign colors for the Democratic Convention.  Later, there is a heated discussion about the wording of a TV spot.  We see Carville bemoaning what he sees as the press's unbalanced coverage of the two candidates after Bush mentions Clinton's alleged draft-dodging.  "Every time somebody farts the word 'draft,' it's on the front page of the paper," says Carville, and he wants to know why there are so few stories about Bush's broken election year promise ("Read my lips: no new taxes").

Much of the footage seen in the latter half of the film was shot at Clinton's national campaign headquarters, nicknamed the "war room," and there is a sense for the viewer of eavesdropping on the campaign proceedings, a feeling that you are there in the room during these moments in history.  The film employs none of the direct interviews with participants and voice-over narratives that have come to dominate the mainstream documentary style over the past two decades.  Pennebaker and Hegedus, true to their roots in the "direct cinema" movement that began in the 1960s, sought to capture these events as they were happening, with no rehearsal or staging, and the result truly is a feeling of "being there."  This aesthetic lends the film an immediacy and tension that make it easy to forget that we know going in what the result of the election is.  Clinton wins, of course, but this film is not about the result, it's about the process that led to that result.

More than anything, what comes through in these captured moments is a feeling of optimism and pride from Clinton's campaign staff.  On the eve of the election, with Clinton a clear leader in the polls, Stephanopoulos is seen praising Carville and the rest of the team, stating that after the next day people will have better jobs, pay less for healthcare, get better healthcare, and their children will go to better schools.  He is later captured saying that this campaign is the best thing he ever did.  A choked-up Carville can also be seen talking about how they changed the way campaigns are run, and he makes it clear throughout the film how important it is for them to win, not just for Clinton, but for the impact his victory would have on the field of campaign strategy.  It is apparent from these scenes that these feelings are sincere, that it's not just a performance.  They truly believe that Clinton is the best man for the job.

The film is particularly interesting to watch from a contemporary perspective, as subsequent years have shed new light on the allegations of marital infidelity that threatened to derail the Clinton campaign even before the primaries.  Clinton is seen denying the affair with Gennifer Flowers to the press, and key members of his campaign team make it clear that they believe in his innocence regarding these matters.  Clinton, of course, later admitted to a sexual encounter with Flowers.  It's also fascinating to see that many of the key points in Clinton's campaign platform (ending the recession, job growth, universal healthcare, and education reform) are still key issues over twenty years later.

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