Fascinatingly intimate and immediate, Chris Hegedus’ and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room is an essential look at the campaign process for political junkies. But you don’t have to be politically minded to get sucked into the natural suspense Hegedus and Pennebaker create with their confident and engaged camera work and incisive editing. The fact that the initially conceived subject — Bill Clinton, running for the Democratic nomination for president — barely appears in the film is no detriment; they got two different and arguably more interesting protagonists to build a film around.
A large part of what makes The War Room so intensely watchable — it never feels didactic or like something you ought to be watching because it’s good for you — is the presence of lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, now household media names but then just two guys running an underdog campaign mostly from headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. Carville and Stephanopoulos emerged as dynamic figures early on in production, the former a fiery motivator and the latter a savvy, thoughtful enigma.
Both men anchor the film so well that its structure just seems to easily fall into place, beginning with a quick catch-up relaying Clinton’s surprise second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and propelling forward through his extremely successful bid against incumbent George H. W. Bush and pesky billionaire Ross Perot. Initially dogged by scandals like the alleged Gennifer Flowers affair, Clinton was able to prevail because of a superb distillation of the major issues by his campaign — primarily the economy, forever encapsulated by the mantra “It’s the economy, stupid!”
The War Room captures both the think-on-your-feet brilliance of Carver and Stephanopoulos, using Bush’s “read my lips” slogan against him to reveal his untenable economic policies and the excruciating minutiae inherent in any large-scale operation, like a fervent discussion of campaign sign shapes and colors. In the background of the main event, we also witness Carville’s budding strange bedfellows romance with Mary Matalin, then the Bush deputy campaign manager.
Hegedus’ and Pennebaker’s film fits comfortably within the tradition of cinema verité and direct cinema, eschewing voiceover narration and simply presenting the events as they played out. But the film’s suspenseful, propulsive structure reveals a pair of brilliant filmmakers — not passive in any way, but carefully and invisibly shaping a great documentary all throughout production.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Criterion Collection presents The War Room in 1080p high definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Shot primarily on 16mm (with some archival video sources mixed in), the film looks quite good, especially considering its on-the-fly roots and the limitations of the source. The image is never crystal clear or tack sharp, but the fairly heavy 16mm grain is resolved perfectly and the film’s colors are vibrant and stable. Video footage is necessarily replete with artifacts, but the digital transfer here is above reproach, presenting the film in its best possible way.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is fantastic, allowing for clear dialogue and dynamic range for the film’s music and crowd segments. Some dialogue is a little hard to hear because of the shooting conditions (not that the muffled stuff is all that essential anyway), but if you want to understand these various hushed asides, the optional English subtitles help quite a bit.
Criterion has put together a great set of extras, both for the political junkie and the documentary fan. On the political side, A 2008 sequel Return of the War Room features Hegedus and Pennebaker making a more traditional talking-head-driven film with Carville, Stephanopoulos and a host of other advisers reflecting on the 1992 campaign, while a panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation features Clinton himself offering a fair amount of memories. An interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg features him going into the finer details of political polling.
On the filmmaking side, Hegedus and Pennebaker and producers R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger gather for a new roundtable-type discussion about how the production came together. Recorded separately are producer Frazer Pennebaker (D.A.’s son) on developing structure and cameraman Nick Doob on the techniques necessary for making a film like this work. A theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Also included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Louis Menand.
The Bottom Line
A sharp presentation and a load of interesting extras add a lot of value to Criterion’s release of The War Room.