Thursday, May 01, 2008

The People from Hope: The War Room

In 1992, I hated Bill Clinton. Not just hated him, but haaaaaaaaaaaaaaated him.

Of course, this was largely because I had been told to because I came from a family of Republicans and he was the one who stopped the years and years of Republican rule. The more popular he became, the angrier we all got, and now that I look back on it, it all seems sort of silly.

The day of the presidential election of 1992, my best friend Drew asked me at lunch (all of us, really -- he was the only Democrat, again, because everyone in his family was) why we didn't like Clinton. He wasn't THAT bad after all. After I overcame the urge to slug him, I realized that I didn't REALLY hate him. I was just responding to the way I had been told to feel. It was probably the first moment I was cognizant of the fact that I could choose my own political identity when the time came. (But I still voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Don't stone me!)

Perhaps that's why D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' excellent political documentary "The War Room" has always been one of my favorite movies about politics. The fly on the wall aspect the film captures has rarely been recreated (only Robert Drew's Primary -- which Pennebaker worked on -- even comes close), and the sense that YOU ARE THERE is really excellently maintained. Watching now, I realize just how little I knew about Clinton in 1992. I knew that he was somehow involved with women other than his wife, but I didn't really understand what that meant (I was 11; gimme a break). I knew that his wife wanted more of a voice at the table, but I didn't really understand why that was viewed as a bad thing either (I don't put this up to budding feminism or anything; I just didn't think about it that much; again, 11). But I didn't know about the draft-dodging accusations, the pro-Communism accusations and on and on and on.

Now, watched through the prism of ANOTHER campaign that Bill Clinton's involved in where I've been known to remark on how he's fallen in esteem in my eyes again (though I doubt I'll ever haaaaaaaaaaaaaaate him again), The War Room seems even more remarkable for how it casts the current Clinton campaign in the role of the incumbent campaign and the Obama campaign in the role of the insurgency. To watch it now is to realize eerie parallels and to feel a story about how you become the thing you hate suggesting itself in your head.

Another thing the documentary surprises with is just how young these people were and just how little they conformed to the stereotypes of them that have taken hold since. There's a moment in the middle where Al Gore gives a speech and he's the furthest thing from stentorian you've ever seen. Hillary Clinton seems surprisingly warm and open (especially given her current public iteration -- reportedly, she's much warmer in person, but, then, I've never met her). James Carville and George Stephanopoulos both have elements of the preening gasbags they would become, but they also seem really involved in the process, interested in pushing aside the old and beginning again with the new. Only Bill Clinton himself really seems like the person we still see today -- and that may be because he hovers around the periphery of the film. Even Chelsea Clinton, spotted briefly, is still just a gawky soon-to-be teen (I actually had a crush on her at the time, my distaste for her father aside, and I still sort of do). The War Room probably doesn't get you as deeply inside as it makes you think you do, but that feeling is enough to power it along.

Presidential elections have been the basis for surprisingly few dramatic works in American culture, despite the fact that many, many contests naturally suggest the sorts of sweeping, historical dramas that used to be Hollywood's bread and butter. That there hasn't been a film about the 1860 election or the 1912 election or the 1896 election is surprising. HBO is turning the aftermath of Bush vs. Gore into a (reportedly excellent) TV movie called Recount (with an all-star cast and the director of Austin Powers), and of course, there are numerous movies surrounding Kennedy the man and the myth. But actual election movies are mostly relegated to documentaries (weirdly, the novel that Alexander Payne's Election -- still my favorite of his films -- was based on is reportedly a twisted retelling of the 1992 election in a high school, with Tracey Flick as George H.W. Bush, I think). There's a documentary crew following the Obama campaign around; here's hoping they turn the crazy story of this primary into something riveting.

I'm going to be gone to a relative's college graduation over the weekend. I'm hoping to get some posts up, including something on Thursday night's shows and a belated blog farewell to Matt Zoller Seitz, but if I can't, I've enclosed the entirety of The War Room (thanks, YouTube!) after the jump so you have something to do anyway. Check it out now and enjoy the time warp.

It's in 10 parts, which are below in order. If you like the movie, please buy it on DVD. It's way better that way than in the little box.

And here are some comments from the filmmakers.

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