The War Room
1993, NR, 95 min. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus. Starring James Carville, George Stephanopoulos.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 26, 1993
Political campaigns and cinema vérité make strange bedfellows. Spin doctoring and strategic planning seem at odds with the documentarian's reveal-all approach to filmmaking. Given these inherent tensions, it's no surprise that the hand-held cameras of husband and wife team, Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop) and Hegedus (Town Bloody Hall), found their way behind the scenes of the 1992 Clinton campaign. Mainly, the film focuses on James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, Clinton's ace strategists who helmed the command post (or the War Room) at campaign headquarters. More than a treatise on Clinton, the candidate, or a debate of the issues, The War Room is an investigation of the "making of the president." Without telling us much about Clinton's programs and platforms, The War Room tells us a great deal about the candidate's ideals and methodologies. We see ample evidence of the savvy and quick thinking of Clinton's two chief political operatives. To watch these two men work is to watch two high-powered media masters at work. Moreover, watching The War Room gives us a sense of the collaborative and un-hierarchical attitudes and practices that governed the campaign's inner workings (and, by extension, the beliefs of the candidate). Of course, there is the question of just how revealing Carville and Stephanopoulos really were, considering the fact that they, of all people, are supremely aware of media manipulation and its techniques. These are pros amongst pros. But still, amongst the mundane problems of figuring out things like the best design for campaign placards and inventing quick, retaliatory TV spots, on the spot, we get a sense of some of the things that drive this campaign -- things like the belief that this is the last real chance for the Democratic party and that their candidate is the only hope for changing the status quo. What we see is both remarkable and unremarkable. We are aware that we're only seeing that which we're being allowed to see and yet, we are struck occasionally by unexpected moments of great intimacy or unmasked emotion. It's at those moments that we get inside what makes this campaign tick, what makes this candidate tick. It's not so much that we learn anything new about political tactics, per se. If you do, then you were probably also shocked by Ed Rollins' recent revelations about vote-buying in New Jersey. Part drama, part civics lesson, part entertainment, it sustains our deep curiosity despite the forgone knowledge of how things turn out.