Spinal Column - Criterion #602: THE WAR ROOM on Blu-ray

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Two decades on, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker's remarkable film The War Room remains an exhilarating achievement for any fan of operatic political drama.

Following the highs and lows of the '92 campaign to elect Bill Clinton president, we're granted what was then unprecedented access into an operating political machine, witnessing in an intimate and intriguing way the work of those that would end up electing the leader of the United States.

It's a testament to the supreme skills of Hegedus and Pennebaker that they managed to craft a film that so easily could have gone astray. After being refused full access to the competing candidates, as well as being denied access to the inner sanctum of the candidate himself, the filmmakers were brought in to cover the machinations in what was then a groundbreaking centralized command center. What's truly remarkable is that far from a stodgy or boring look at boardroom machinations, the viewer is granted access to an exhilarating, come-from-behind political action story.

Never before in American politics had an operation of this nature been carried out on a National stage. The War Room in question was basically what's referred to now more commonly as a "quick response unit", allowing easy dissemination of information amongst a myriad of staff so that attacks could be responded to quickly, events dealt with and attacks made when the time was still ripe to do so.

This is all pretty wonky, inside-baseball stuff. What makes the film shine, however, is the two central characters at the heart of the film, senior campaign strategist James Carville and the young press officer George Stephanopoulos. Both of these men would go on to great celebrity, helped very much in part because of their starring role in this non-fiction classic. In one of the supplements on disc, Pennebaker talks about that remarkable moment when Carville refers to then President George H. W. Bush as being yesterdays news, comparing him to an old calendar. This kind of home spun, slightly hokey metaphor coming from this reptilian bald man with the Louisiana drawl proved a key into how the story would be structured.

Stephanopoulos too looks to be way out of his element, a baby-faced man with action figure hair, his enthusiasm is infectious, his quick-on-his-feat reactions sometimes quite astonishing. There are moments of startling intimacy watching him work, including a very uncomfortable moment with a rival campaign staffer looking for a late season spurious attack against the candidate. The way that Stephanopoulos deals with the call is chilling, and the fact that the camera is allowed to role uninterrupted a wonderful thing for the sanctity of the project.

Of course, the film would have been very different if its audience didn't know the eventual outcome, yet the film manages to create great drama out of the circumstances, particularly the (then alleged) dalliances with one Gennifer Flowers. Given what was to transpire within the White House, this early allegation of infidelity, combined with the other more spurious claims about a lack of patriotism expressed in a letter requesting deferment from Military service, are all seen through a very different light here in 2012 compared to how it played in theatres back in the early '90s.

The echoes of the present that illuminate the actions of the past are quite remarkable indeed, seen from what's (now) a contemporary perspective. The film starts with Carville slamming the behaviour of Bush's Campaign lead Roger Ailles, accusing him of this or that breech of protocol. The fact that Ailles would go on to run the incredibly successful (both from an ideological and financial basis) Fox News Channel gives this potentially confounding rant even more salience all these years later.

Clinton himself shows up in the film sporadically, with some of the most compelling footage either captured by news organizations or by other cooperating documentarians. It's again the testament to Hegedus and Pennebaker that these elements are integrated so beautifully into the film, forming an extremely coherent narrative. Too often documentaries of this form slouch along, either becoming as dry as security footage or so kinetic or listless that they devolve into a kind of incoherent mess. Throughout its feature length running time, the audience remains completely transfixed by the operation of these young political guns, while Carville peppers throughout such delightfully pithy bon mots as "It's the economy, stupid."

As we move directly into silly season (as I write the Republicans are gathering to nominate Mitt Romney as their future leader, while the Obama administration is already in full campaign mode), The War Room remains very much a vital look at what has proven to be the nascence of modern political operations. In a time when fax machines and couriers took the place of emails, when an operation receives a VHS tape from Rio and has to wait until the nightly news to see if a particular political hit-piece makes it on air, some of the elements appear almost quaint compared to the 24/7 onslaught of a modern campaign.

Still, free from notions of partisanship or particular bias, for a fan of politics of any stripe, from any nation, The War Room is an exciting and edgy film. Larger than life characters do their level best in this kind of full contact campaign machination, and the filmmakers were at the right place, at the right time, with (most importantly) the right sensibility to capture and present this moment with enormous insight.

The Disc


The War Room comes in one of the fine deluxe editions that has made the name synonymous with exceptional quality for fans of shinydisc, from their earliest Laserdiscs to these latest Blu-Ray releases.

Shot using available light and handheld 16mm cameras (intercut with broadcast television video footage), no one will through on this title to showcase their fancy, glossy new home theatre set. That said, the high definition disc does an excellent job in translating the film look, free from digital or other noise or excessive softness. The colours are muted as per the original source, the picture presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The lossless soundtrack, mostly dialogue heavy exchanges, is both clear and coherent throughout.

In short, as should be expected, the film has never looked better in a home presentation format, and, given the source, is highly unlikely to ever look or sound any better than this.

The Supplements
 
The most extraordinary supplement is a second feature-length documentary shot by Hegedus and Pennebaker. Return of the War Room was shot during the heat of the 2008 election, and many of the usual suspects are reunited on film.

For any fans of the original work, this supplement alone is an absolutely essential addition. The work does a remarkable job in contextualizing some of the more brushed over elements, from the unique relationship between Bush campaign staffer Mary Matlin and her now-Husband Carville, to Paul Bagala dealing explicitly with the Lewinsky scandal. Certainly most of the voices continue to be from the Clinton camp, but the inclusion of notorious Republican Polster (and Perot campaign staffer) Frank Luntz sitting on a park bench in Washington as this or that lobbyist walks by is a delightful part of the work.

Stephanopoulos speaks forthrightly about the changes in modern campaigns, admitting sheepishly that he's not sure he could have dealt with the modern equivalent. Carville remains his wonderfully serpentine self, and while shots of a happy family life may be mildly gratuitous, they don't distract from the interesting elements he details in this supplementary documentary.
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Here a mere four years after that other doc, following the likes of Citizen's United, the rise of the Superpac, the growing Tea Party and Occupy movements, and the continuing role that the internet and social media are playing in this election cycle, it's almost astonishing to see how quickly even this most recent works seems slightly out of step with the modern election machine. That said, the truths at the core of both story continue to hold, and the lessons and techniques developed in part by the members of that War Room most definitely continue to affect nearly every modern democratic election in the world.

The disc also includes a 20 minute William J. Clinton Foundation Panel discussion, where some of the key participants in the original War Room gathered in Arkansas in 2011 to remember the 20th anniversary of that campaign. The main participants (including Carville) are shown very briefly, with the majority of the time spent on a response by the former President himself. In his inimitable folksy way, Clinton provides a bit more context on just how dire the campaign was before he declared himself to be "The Comeback Kid". It's hardly revelatory stuff, but certainly a welcome addition.

More interesting is the Making the War Room interviews. The two producers, along with Hedgedus and Pennebaker, have what's called a "Rashomon moment", telling their own versions of what led up to the film being made.

It's clear that while the name Pennebaker was invaluable in seeing certain doors open up, it's Hedgedus' drive and temperament that was perhaps most responsible for the success of the film in its present form. Her own recollections are refreshing free from sentiment, and she often contradicts the more rose-coloured recollections of the other participants with what can only be seen as more factual remembrances of the actual events. Without a formal commentary track, this brief doc, combined with the supplemental film, provides an excellent overview of both the production challenges and the legacy of the original work.

Similar, solo interviews with producer Frazer Pennebaker and cameraman Doob [sic] help flesh out more of the stories that the group provides in the earlier short doc.

There's a brief clip of Stanley Greenberg, one of the characters in the film, that talks about the changes to his own profession of polling that have taken place since the '92 campaign. His views are interesting on their own, but are particularly salient when they illustrate just what has changed radically, and what very much remains fundamental aspects of modern campaign practice.

Finally, there's the Trailer included on disc (always a welcome addition!), as well as a colourful booklet with an essay called Being There by Harvard Professor Louis Menand. Menard details many of the same things artculated on disc, as well as noting the particular of early films that shaped this work, including Primary about JFK, shot in part by Pennebaker, and Feed, the film whose footage formed the opening scenes of The War Room.

Final Take

As the balloons fall and the speeches fly, the international circus that is the American quadrennial political system will once again slip into top gear, racing towards a November election. Behind the sound bites and campaign ads, with talking pundits and talking points, there is a group of individuals who professionally help individuals survive this trying process in order to succeed on this very unique battlefield.

Criterion's presentation this work of is as exemplary as the finest titles in their collection. This disc includes both exceptional supplementary material, and a wonderfully timeless central feature that looks in a unique way at a historic election by focusing on the chararismatic, crazy individuals that populated The War Room.


Jason Gorber's Spinal Column is an ongoing series detailing the remarkable films that are part of the Criterion Collection.
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