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My expectations for The War Room were all wrong. I had assumed that if a camera crew could go behind the scenes of almost any political campaign it would reveal the cynicism at the bottom of contemporary American politics. Behind the scenes, after all, is where focus groups decide a candidate’s positions and consultants package the candidate’s best image for public consumption. So any behind the scene’s documentary had the likelihood of producing a very cynical film.

The War Room concentrates on James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, the two men responsible for Governor Clinton’s primary and presidential strategies in 1992. DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have been given excellent access, allowing the camera to follow Carville and Stephanopoulos during the intense pressures of a national campaign. The camera follows their day-to-day activities, watching them build morale, plan political ads, answer phone calls, and grab a quick bite to eat. "The War Room" of the title is the room where the campaign team meets to hash out the strategy.

Many people who follow politics—myself included—probably thought that they knew these two politicians fairly well. But Pennebaker and Hegedus’ lingering cameras reveal a number of traits about both that are unfamiliar. The quick talking combative Carville, who seldom lets his opponent get a word in edgewise, is shown to have an emotional core. One of the more affecting scenes includes footage of Carville receiving accolades from his fellow campaign workers. He attempts to give a speech, only to break down repeatedly. Is this the tough-skinned attack dog that would be turned on the press repeatedly during political crises? Stephanopoulos serves as the quiet opposite and perfect counter-balance to his intense partner. His loyalty and endless efforts seem born out his belief that more people really will have better jobs and pay less for healthcare if Clinton is elected. While he sometimes struck pundits as an inexperienced and not very likable yuppie, he comes across as a nice, competent guy here.

Pennebaker and Hegedus’ style capture these two men in their "natural" element, rendering them much more lifelike than the 6:30 news. As William Rothman points out, "Typically, news is presented on television by newscasters who address the camera directly. When news footage is shown, it is accompanied by a newscaster’s voiceover that tells us how to understand what we are viewing." Pennebaker and Hegedus let the film roll with no voiceover. While the film has obviously been edited, the camera is never in a hurry to cut away from a non-dramatic scene. Watching a person eat a donut, discuss a trivial issue with a co-worker, or curse out of frustration, seems so much more intimate and real compared to a piece of film cut and pasted from sound bites.

Today, at the beginning of a new administration, is a good time to watch The War Room again. Its casual footage of politicians performing their everyday duties produces more admiration than cynicism. Sure, politics may partially be a game, but the people involved must be willing to go without sleep, live without job security, and give up their personal life for the length of the campaign. Some of these people, contrary to popular opinion, really believe in something. The War Room is also a lesson in Pennebaker and Hegedus’ belief in his project. How many filmmakers would follow a group of politicians for ten months and hope to find a genuine story? This is a well-made film, full of human warmth and insight, and another star in the crown for DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


DA Pennebaker—Director/Cinematography
Chris Hegedus—Director/Sound
R.J. Cutler—Producer
Wendy Ettinger—Producer/Executive Producer
Frazer Pennebaker—Producer/Executive Producer
Nick Doob—Cinematography
David Dawkins—Sound
Rebbeca Baron—Assistant Editor
Erez Laufer—Associate Editor