The War Room
In early 1992, the Democratic Primary was a tatters of unelectable stiffs, loons, and lotharios; in many ways, it was practically its own "Saturday Night Live" sketch (made possible almost single-handedly by the impassioned, grass-roots participation of California's quirky "Governor Moonbeam," Jerry Brown). The leading candidate, Paul Tsongas, was that rarity in politics an honest man but his unimpeachable character stood in marked and often painful contrast to his utter lack of personality, a quality that his most dangerous rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, possessed in spades as if to offset his chief flaw, that being an unquenchably libidinous and, in the right hands, highly impeachable character. So when Gennifer Flowers was trotted out for that infamous press conference now most fondly recalled for Howard Stern prankster Stuttering John's appropriately indecorous question "Did the governor wear a condom?", it seemed to signal the end of Clinton's presidential aspirations. However, what no one could account for at that moment was the souped-up campaign engine powering the governor's run for the White House, which was being recorded by documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and the legendary D.A. Pennebaker and only because the pair were having difficulty getting access to the candidate. The resulting movie was titled The War Room after Hillary Clinton's infamous dubbing of the fiercely brilliant collective charged with winning her husband the nomination and, ultimately, the White House, and it is a thrilling, invigorating ride through one of the most startling political resurrections in history. That it was all masterminded by two then-relative, and starkly different, unknowns the wild-eyed Louisianan campaign manager James Carville and the youthful, polished George Stephanopoulos makes the story that much more improbable and fascinating.
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The War Room opens with the contentious New Hampshire primary where Clinton's political life flashed before his eyes with Flowers' carefully timed revelation of her alleged 12-year affair with the governor. Her open admission that she was approached by Republican operatives highlights the justifiable concern already felt by Bush's team over Clinton's formidability, and it helps to focus the narrative as a tale of the modest, issue-driven Carville and Stephanopoulos versus the Right's powerful, well-funded attack machine that, as both men continually assert, is resorting to character-smears as a means to divert the public's attention from the incumbent's less-than-stellar domestic record. It's an early, do-or-die gut check for "The War Room," and one that Carville answers with a stirring address to his troops, reminding them of "the real enemy," listing players like the ruthless Republican strategist Roger Ailes and wealthy socialite Georgette Mosbacher. Though Hegedus and Pennebaker keep the cameras rolling throughout, Clinton's sturdy-legged rise from the canvas remains inexplicable his resiliency owing, it would seem, to the indefatigable activity of Carville's charges. Amazingly, Carville's promise that, should they defeat this charge now, it will be rendered useless for the rest of the campaign holds true, and this realization unquestionably, if tacitly, re-energizes the whole team, which breezes through the rest of the primary, charging into the final, mano a mano heat with the swagger of winners. There are frustrations, like Carville's inability to manufacture a mini-scandal over the outsourced (and potentially illegal) Brazilian production of Bush/Quayle campaign signs, as well as Texas billionaire Ross Perot's on-again/off-again third-party insurrection that threatens to siphon off a significant number of Bush voters, and it's something of a triumph that Hegedus and Pennebaker maintain a measure of suspense even though the outcome is, obviously, well known.
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The War Room (nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 1994) is a highly entertaining and tightly edited piece of political history that should be required viewing for every American as a laying bare of the ceaseless manipulation required to win the American presidency. Though effectively demonized by right-leaning pundits, Carville's never-ending stream of epigrammatic utterances are winning enough to make him an ingratiating protagonist regardless of one's political affiliation. His post-mortem on Perot's campaign (a bit randy to be reprinted here) should forever serve as that strange, schizophrenic endeavor's epitaph. Far more measured, but still quite likable, is Stephanopoulos, whose Rhodes Scholar pedigree is the perfect intellectual counterpoint to Carville's down-and-dirty campaign manner. Taken together, these differing personalities are an interesting reflection of their candidate's complicated, bifurcated disposition that frustrated his supporters as much as it enraged his detractors. Hegedus and Pennebaker are careful to avoid any examination of Clinton's character, sticking stubbornly to the confines of "The War Room," which is, to a degree, a flaw in that the viewer is never given a sense of why this campaign's methodology was so revolutionary. Lacking a larger context, one is left asking fewer questions that perhaps the filmmakers intended, though such griping hardly detracts from the picture's achievement. By eschewing both narration and score, The War Room is a refreshing model of objectivity to which all documentarians should aspire.
Universal/Focus Features presents The War Room in a full-frame transfer (1.33:1) that is modified from the film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but not jarringly so, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is fine, though one should be prepared to prick up their ears for some of the subjects' sotto voce deliberations (don't be shy about using the subtitles for clarification, as some of these whisperings are very revealing). The biggest disappointment is the paucity of special features, which are limited to a new, not terribly insightful videotaped introduction from Hegedus and Pennebaker. It would've been nice to have a new epilogue detailing Stephanopoulos's somewhat disharmonious resignation from the Clinton administration as a repulsed reaction to strategist Dick Morris's rise in favor, but that would also dim the victorious glow with which the film ends. Keep-case.