Perhaps the greatest irony watching the political documentary The War Room, now exactly a dozen years after its release, is how almost quaint the running of Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential Campaign seems in 2005 terms, and how much more cynical and disillusioned America has become since that election.
Directed by the husband-wife team of DA Pennebaker (no periods, at least not in the credits) and Chris Hegedus, The War Room follows the Clinton camp from the New Hampshire primaries, when the aspiring Arkansas governor's biggest threat was the late Paul Tsongas, whose own campaign, in this modern TV age, was undone by an unruly name and an Elmer Fudd-like delivery. Records and political stands aside, Tsongas was like a joke, a sub-Michael Dukakis, next to the Kennedy-esque, Oxford-educated, good ol' boy southerner.
Though Clinton is glimpsed early on, as he pulls ahead in the primaries and moves toward a national campaign he all but disappears, and Pennebaker and Hegedus stick closely to strategist James Carville and media director George Stephanopoulos. As many other reviewers have pointed out, the Mutt & Jeff pair are like something out of a Hollywood movie, perfectly cast and naturally charismatic. Carville -- bald, hulking with a Cheshire Cat-like face stretched into a perpetual intensity, pops Tums and lights up the campaign headquarters and its war room with a piercing, animated Southern drawl. Stephanopoulos -- dressier, compact and low-key, is Carville's junior but equally adroit, less emotional and more pragmatic. Together they often operate on a kind of Good Cop/Bad Cop basis in their handling of the media.
In sharp contrast to the activist documentaries that dominated 2003, The War Room has no obvious political agenda. Shot and edited in the manner of cinema verite, there's no narrator, no back story. There's no explaination of what's going on during a particular scene, and the filmmakers are resolutely invisible and off-camera. Indeed, those unfamiliar with the players may find the film confusing at times, such as Carville's opposites attact romance with Bush strategist Mary Matalin, which goes unexplained in the picture. The film shows the campaign's cleverness but also its occasional foolishness (e.g., a long-winded debate about media-savvy "home-made" signs at the Democratic Convention) and naked spin ("Just keep on repeating that Bush was on the defensive all night!" Stephanopoulos instructs his team after one of the Clinton-Bush debates). Those who would claim movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 don't qualify as documentaries because they're not "objective" (an absurd statement: all documentaries are subjective), might prefer this over the bulk of last year's Op-Ed pieces. It's a look inside one presidential campaign, nothing more or less.
Looking at it now, The War Room is a little surreal. George Stephanopoulos appears on ABC's This Week, only he's a guest (and not yet its host) doing damage control on behalf of his boss. A debate among Democratic candidates looks like current events, yet there's iconoclast Bill Bonds, the long-gone Howard Beale of Detroit news anchors moderating the debate. The war room itself is like any other cluttered, nondescript office; one suspects with the big money poured into both parties in the last election, Karl Rove and his ilk probably wouldn't have stood for such slovenly surroundings.
But whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, there's a genuine sadness that comes with hindsight watching The War Room. As Clinton wins by a relative landslide over Bush Sr. in the national election, Carville and Stephanopoulos are swept up in the emotion of the event, and they express real hope for the future of America, optimism they've perhaps not felt in years. That Clinton would squander what wasn't already pummeled into nothingness by the Right is a tragedy whose effects are still being played out all these years later.
Near the end of the movie, minutes before Clinton's acceptance speech, a choked-up Stephanopoulos, talking to the president-elect on a cellphone, tells his boss, "This is the best thing I ever did." A few years later, after his resignation as President Clinton's Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy, Stephanopoulos squirmily was interviewed about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He looked heartbroken, like a man punched in the stomach. Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow" had been Clinton's "theme song" during the campaign; by January 2005 it had taken on an entirely new meaning.
Video & Audio
The War Room carries a disclaimer stating that the film has "been modified" from its theatrical version to fit 4:3 television screens. While this is technically true, as the film was matted (probably to 1.66:1) in 35mm prints, the picture was in fact shot in 16mm and probably would have been shown only in full frame format had it not been so good and topical as to warrant a full-blown theatrical release. The image is fine given the limitations of the 16mm format, and the sound, Dolby Stereo, is good if limited in its separations. Optional French and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as hard-of-hearing English captions.
The single extra is a filmmakers' introduction, which is full frame and runs five minutes.
Though made chiefly to get inside the minds and inner workings of a presidential campaign team, The War Room has taken on a new life in ways that couldn't have been predicted when it was new. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.