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Universal Studios Home Video presents
"The friction on this is going to be too much for Clinton to survive. It's going to be a matter of days before he gets out, if not hours."
DVD ReviewEvery four years there's plenty of griping that Presidential politics has sunk to a new low, but even a cursory look at history suggests that it's always been that way. The Federalists frequently made public and thinly veiled innuendos about Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, for instance; and we've all heard the tired old saw by now about Nixon having a face for radio, and JFK winning the 1960 debates by being not only but certainly a pretty face. So if the 527s have got you down, it's time to take a trip back to The War Room, one of the best, most revealing political documentaries ever made. A scant twelve years have passed, which means that sometimes this feels like ancient history, and at others plays as if it just came off of the wires. The natural audience for this is blue staters, but politicos of all stripes and documentary film fans will have a fine time with this one.
Documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were given extraordinary access to the 1992 Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton; you may remember that Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas and little known outside of his home state, was in pursuit of a nomination that was widely regarded as worthless, for the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, had poll numbers in the stratosphere, flush from the success of Operation Desert Storm, and his re-election was deemed all but certain. Clinton himself appears only sporadically; the leading men here are George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, who become sort of a Democratic Felix and Oscar. Stephanopoulos is every bit the boy wonder—when a bottle of Scotch gets passed around, you almost want to card him—but he shows a deft touch with the media especially, towing the party line without sounding like a windup toy just spewing out the same tired aphorisms. He seems genial enough, but the real star is Carville, shot in these days before he started commodifying and shilling his ragin' Cajun schtick. Here he's unstudied, and a man of naked emotions; just about all the highlights of the documentary are Carville arias.
The first is a speech to workers at the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire, before the primary, in the wake of the notorious Gennifer Flowers press conference. Things don't look good for their man, and the troops could use some bucking up—Carville takes the floor, and starts quietly, but soon whips himself up into a frenzy, and he takes his audience with him—they're going to stick it to George Bush and Georgette Mosbacher and all the rest of them. Another comes the night before the general election, during the final meeting of the war room—Stephanopoulos praises Carville for his leadership, and when James starts speaking, his tears start flowing right away. Even if you disagree with his politics, the genuineness of this is almost painful to watch. Finally, and perhaps most amazingly, is a scene on Election Day itself, when the outcome was still very much in doubt. James and George can't do anything but wait, and Carville launches into an extemporaneous draft of what would have been Bill Clinton's concession speech. He's such a pro that the cadence is exactly right, and you know that, would Clinton have lost, this is just what he would have said; but Carville brims with tension, with exhaustion, with glimmers of hope and fears of failure, that it's just galvanizing to look at.
Love is in the air, too, as we see just a bit of Carville's budding romance with his opposite number on the Bush campaign, Mary Matalin. Politics aside, you can see why they're together—they're all about process, they're about elections and not governance, and on some level, you could argue that they and people like them are exactly what's wrong with American politics. But they both obviously relish a good fight, they love slinging mud, and they know the game like few others do. (It's a shame that Speechless was so mediocre, because the Carville/Matalin romance could be the stuff of classic screwball comedy.)
Pennebaker and Hegedus capture the evolution of American politics—the up-close look at Spin Alley after the Presidential debates is especially revealing; they also get at the dead ends and false starts that are an inevitable part of a venture like a Presidential campaign. (Carville locks on to, for instance, a report from Brazilian television, showing Bush-Quayle '92 bunting being printed overseas.) It's also a chance to visit again with familiar faces from the Clinton years: DeeDee Myers! Mickey Kantor! Stanley Greenberg, Harold Ickes! A few glimpses of the opposition demonstrate that not much has changed—at one point, President Bush more or less calls Clinton a flip flopper—but my only real gripe with the movie is that once again it subjects us to Fleetwood Mac ad nauseam, with too many encores of Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Universal has unwisely cropped the 1.66:1 original, and while admittedly cinema vérité is not the place to look for perfectly composed images, this could and should look better; aside from being panned and scanned, the transfer is full of dirt and dust. The paranoiac in me wonders if Karl Rove is behind this.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: Some of the conversations can be rough to make out—Mickey Kantor especially seems phobic about the camera—but otherwise this is par for the course for a documentary of this sort, with atmospheric buzz and hiss.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Extras Review: The only extra of note is an introduction (05m:29s) from Hegedus and Pennebaker; the former talks about getting access to the Clinton campaign, while the latter is very good on situating this film in the context of political documentaries, especially in relationship to Primary, on which he also worked. This brief conversation only points up the missed opportunity of not including more material on this disc.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsEverything from Joe Klein's Primary Colors to Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys with George owes a huge debt to The War Room, one of the great documents of Presidential politics in the last years of the 20th century. George Stephanopoulos and James Carville have become little more than talking heads and cartoon figures these days, but here they are as full-blooded, fully rounded characters, with dreams, hopes, foibles and failures—it's about as human a look at the political process as you'll ever see. Its re-release on DVD a month before the general election may or may not bring good karma to the Kerry campaign, but it's certainly worth a look at the inner workings of a campaign of a Democratic challenger looking to unseat an incumbent named Bush who chose as the basis of his re-election campaign the prosecution of a war against Saddam Hussein.
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