Great political documentaries (No23) The War Room

The War Room isn’t the first attempt to take a behind the scenes look at how a political campaign is run, Joe McGinniss’s book The Selling of the President had already done it in 1968. However it was the first major documentary to cover an election from beginning to end from inside one of the candidates headquarters.

The film focuses on Bill Clinton’s senior staff as they develop what would become the three central messages of the 92 Presidential campaign, ‘Change vs more of the same’, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, and ‘Don’t forget healthcare’. Clinton himself is absent for much of the documentary and instead James Carville and a very young George Stephanopoulos take centre-stage.

Carville in particular is amazing, possessing seemingly limitless reserves of energy and a contagious desire to win. Looking like Hunter S Thompson’s younger brother with a very strong Cajun accent, he tends to dominate every scene he’s in. In an inspirational speech he gives to his staff towards the end of the campaign, he tells them, “Outside of a person’s love, the most sacred thing they can give is their labor. And you have combined labor with love”. In a way it’s amazing that the film-makers were allowed such in-depth access. You’ve got to assume that Clinton’s run at the Presidency was such a long shot that they thought they could do with all the media attention they could get.

The documentary starts during the New Hampshire primary, when Clinton’s campaign looked dead in the water thanks to Gennifer Flowers allegations that he’d had an affair with her. As a result candidates like Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas and Tom Harkin looked like more realistic frontrunners. The main things Clinton had going for him was the fact that he was a representative of the ‘New South’, and his sheer force of personality. You should never underestimate how important charisma is in modern politics and Clinton had it in spades.  Unfortunately he also had a lot of what the press liked to refer to as ‘character issues’, which included Ms Flowers, but also allegations of draft dodging and organising anti-war protests in Moscow. The way the Bush team use these, suggests that while Lee Atwater might have died in 1991, his brand of political campaigning still dominated the Republican Party.

As well as the overall strategy and dealing with day-to-day events, the documentary is very good at showing how Clinton’s staff constantly have to worry about small details. There is lengthy scene were the team gather round to discuss the phrasing of a political advert, and what exact combination of words will fill the allotted slot, yet at the same time have maximum impact. There is also plenty of gallows humour. On election day when polls suggest Bush is in the lead, Carville jokingly starts drafting Clinton’s concession speech.

The two main problems the documentary suffers from is that without a voice-over, or some kind of captioning, it’s often difficult to keep track of who people are or what their role in the campaign is. Equally for people too young to remember 1992, some of the events require a bit more explanation. For instance it shows the controversy over whether Jerry Brown could speak at the Democratic convention, without making is clear who Jerry Brown was, what he wanted to say, why people didn’t want him to say it, and what the eventual outcome was.

In the end The War Room is an entertaining look behind the scenes, and it never gets old watching George Bush being dragged over the coals for his “Read My Lips: No New Taxes” pledge. The documentary should be required viewing for Obama’s staff, as he’s in a similar position to Bush with regards to presiding over a seemingly moribund economy. On the plus side for him, on the evidence so far, Mitt Romney is no Bill Clinton.

Here is the trailer for The War Room:

For a full list of great political documentaries please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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