The War Room (The Criterion Collection) Review

American political theater’s steady descent into sound-bite-ready, image-conscious entertainment was a long, gradual process without a clear watershed moment (and was probably never as pronounced as alarmists like to imagine), but the importance of Bill Clinton to that process is not to be underestimated. Historical evaluation of his policies aside, Clinton utilized media in the service of his campaign in a way that no other figure previously had, and synthesized a potent political base in the process (one fully utilized in the election of Barack Obama). While a lot of this has to do with the way that Clinton was branded, it has perhaps more to do with the way that his campaign and its staff were branded as a youthful, energetic meeting of Baby Boomers ready to shake up a system still occupied by World War Two veterans.

Imagine that we were in the election cycle of 1992; the Republicans have controlled the White House for the last twelve years, with eight of them under the paragon of modern conservativism, Ronald Reagan. The man once stated that he didn't know how anyone could manage to be President without having been an actor and returns bore that philosophy out not only for him, but his appointed successor George H.W. Bush. Now imagine that you're one of the many people alienated by the policies of the Reagan administration, and that you're forced to take a serious look at the people you have selected to oppose him. Jimmy Carter. Walter Mondale. Michael Dukakis. While all most likely have their virtues as legislators, it's hard to picture any of these men being able to excite a dog about a piece of bacon on the ground, let alone entice a vast swath of the populace to deviate from their commutes on the first Tuesday of November on their behalf. To this great void, saxophone-playing, smooth-talking Bill Clinton must have seemed like nothing short of a newfound wellspring for a party barely able to muster a death twitch.

Clinton is, of course, an important figure in The War Room, but he is by no means its center of gravity: that title would be held dually by James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, both of whom should be recognizable to even apathetic non-voters. The ways in which their tactics differed from those of previous campaign personnel would be obvious only to historians of the subject, but are ultimately irrelevant to their place in the public eye; they both had telegenic personalities, and they were both visible not just as Democratic mouthpieces, but as representatives of Clinton's dynamic new spirit. Together, they helped sell the notion of the 42nd President as the political equivalent of the 'cool kids table', where everyone with any stake in the future was sitting.

The War Room's greatest asset as a documentary is its efficiency; at an athletic 96 minutes, Pennebaker simply doesn't have the time to waste with things like on-the-spot interviews, and what little context is there is provided by newscasters (the biggest liability at the moment is the Gennifer Flowers scandal, an eerie omen of things to come). The rest is filled in simply as Carville and Stephanopoulos speak to each other and to the rest of the staff, and to their credit (and Pennebaker's), they never look at the camera, giving Room an exceptionally natural, intimate feeling, as if the documentarians themselves were a party to history. However, they don't ever seem to say anything that they wouldn't feel comfortable having played back in movie theaters, lending an indelible impression that this documentary is yet another piece of their machine, even if nothing salacious was left on the cutting room floor.

Where other political campaigns seemed anxious at even the very idea that there were men behind the curtain, Clinton made extensive political use of his puppet masters to fill in the blank space in any campaign platform: where the rest of us fit in. The War Room serves as both a document of that initial promise and an extension of its language, though it would be hard to evoke the spirit of that period without being both.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Naturally, the film was been remastered, preserving its 4:3 aspect ratio. There's also a documentary called Return of the War Room, in which the principals here reflect on the way that their own work significantly altered campaign politics, as well as several pieces in which the filmmakers reflect on the difficulties of shooting in a campaign environment. The centerpiece is probably a panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation featuring James Carville, Vernon Jordan, Ron Brownstein, and Clinton himself, but for good measure, an interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg is also thrown in.

"The War Room (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale March 20, 2012 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Da Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus. Starring George Stephanopoulos, James Carville.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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