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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
D. Lankford, Jr.
Wendy Ettinger—Producer/Executive Producer
Frazer Pennebaker—Producer/Executive Producer
Rebbeca Baron—Assistant Editor
Erez Laufer—Associate Editor