***/**** Image B Sound B Extras B+
directed by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker
by Angelo Muredda "When I think of an old calendar, I see George Bush's face on it." How things have changed since lead Democratic strategist James Carville made that case against then-incumbent President George H.W. Bush in the winter of 1992, long before the rise of Dubya necessitated the use of such cumbersome initials. The War Room, a fly-on-the-wall account of the wildly successful but not always charmed Bill Clinton campaign from the POV of his key operatives, now feels like a time-capsule itself, an old calendar from an era before the internet and Super PACs radically changed the way presidential campaigns were run from moment to moment. Far from feeling hopelessly outdated, though, Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's unofficial sequel to Pennebaker's work on Primary, which followed JFK's vanquishing of opponent Hubert Humphrey, is an illuminating look at how one of the most successful national campaigns in modern electoral history was waged from an unassuming office in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The candidate is a blur here, witnessed briefly early on as he takes a phone call in slovenly ball cap and shorts before the New Hampshire primary. He's rarely seen again outside of contentious media scrums, with Carville and Communications Director George Stephanopoulos quickly taking centre stage. A major gamble at the outset, Hegedus and Pennebaker's bet on the campaign's brain trust turned out to be a masterstroke. It's fascinating to see these men peacocking in their natural political habitats before they became innocuous talking-head staples of the mainstream media. A world apart from the toothless interviewer he is today, Stephanopoulos shines as both a boardroom ideas man and a fresh-faced spin-room operative. He's responsible for one of the movie's most powerful behind-the-curtain reveals of campaign pageantry, racing through the halls of a university auditorium to tell his staffers to "keep repeating that Bush was on the defensive all night" after the first debate, then delivering the same message to the press seconds later with the poise of a snake charmer.
While Stephanopoulos makes for a nice portrait of youthful grace under fire, it's Carville (frequently called the "Ragin' Cajun") who's not only the rhetorical engine but also the emotional centre of the film. It isn't just that his repeated message of "It's the economy, stupid" became the definitive slogan of the campaign, but that there's an alchemical marriage between his common-sense rhetoric and his self-presentation as a straight-shooting Louisiana everyman. In their attention to Carville's no-frills aesthetic of ratty sweaters and whiteboards, Hegedus and Pennebaker suggest, quite convincingly in retrospect, that the groundswell of new Democratic support in 1992 owed as much to his reframing of the party as a bastion for blue-collar workers as it did to Clinton's not-inconsiderable charisma.
Focused as it is on the development of these two characters, The War Room ultimately isn't all that illuminating of the political process, and has very little to say about either Clinton or Bush. Unlike Carville, it pulls its punches and generally maintains a cheeky distance from the major players, opting for a bevy of cutesy music cues about elections and a curiously rosy depiction of Carville's spouse, Republican operative Mary Matalin, who's framed as the heroine in a screwball comedy. What it arguably lacks in bite, though, it makes up in observational detail and surprising emotional depth, with Carville's election-night pep talk about the sacredness of giving your labour feeling like the best Aaron Sorkin speech that Sorkin never wrote.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion delivers The War Room to Blu-ray in what is easily its best presentation to date. Its 1:33:1 aspect ratio preserved, the picture looks surprisingly vivid considering the 16mm source (the 1080p transfer, according to the liner notes, was culled from the original negative), boasting faithful colour reproduction and clarity, most noticeable in the sharp text on the campaign posters that line the titular location. Grain is rarely unwieldy, save for a few busier moments like a pre-convention board meeting. Audio is also what you'd expect, given the bustling nature of the shoot; for a DTS-HD 2.0 surround track, the rear channels are put to good use with directional effects like fireworks at a rally. The filmmakers' frequent jazz cues come through loud and brassy, and dialogue is crisp.
Extras are strong, if weighted towards the political junkie rather than the direct cinema aficionado. The most substantial of these is Return of The War Room (1080i), a charmingly retro 80-minute follow-up film that revisits both major and minor players from the campaign in 2008. There's much that's of interest for anyone curious about the history of polling, but in all honesty it's the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal that's most energizing. Though Carville maintains his veneer of old Southern politeness, Stephanopoulos betrays a downright Shakespearean dismay about his old boss, who he describes as a doddering Lear figure. One supposes that makes Stephanopoulos Cordelia.
The filmmakers get more to say in "Making The War Room" (58 mins. in toto, 1080p), which is composed of a general discussion between Hegedus, Pennebaker, and producers Wendy Ettinger and R.J. Cutler, plus a pair of one-off interviews with producer Frazer Pennebaker and camera operator Nick Doob. The roundtable provides the most compelling material, with the directors admitting they honed in on the campaign strategists only when a NEWSWEEK writer scooped their bid to access Clinton.
The former President leaves his mark (not that kind) on the disc in a video (26 mins., 1080i) from a Clinton Foundation event commemorating the twenty-year anniversary of his candidacy. He's not in top form here, frequently rambling and patting his guests on the shoulder, but he does make some interesting points about how Republicans are generally better at selling campaign narratives. There's also an 11-minute interview with pollster Stanley Greenberg (1080p) for those so inclined. Rounding out the extras are a trailer and the standard Criterion booklet, featuring an essay from Harvard English professor and NEW YORKER columnist Louis Menand. Follow Angelo Muredda on Twitter