Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room captures all the voyeuristic you-are-there immediacy of its Direct Cinema forebears, stretching as far back as 1960’s Primary, on which Pennebaker served as editor. Yet it also signals a sea change in the filmmakers’ involvement with behind-the-scenes politics, capturing the process just as quantum leaps in communication technology forever altered the ways campaigning gets done. Tellingly, the filmmakers’ 2008 follow-up, Return of the War Room, is structured along more conventional talking-head lines, one of the most touched-on talking points being precisely the impact of the Internet and cellphones on modern politics, acknowledging the self-aware, self-cannibalizing nature of the modern mediasphere. Such overt recognition isn’t absent from the earlier film, cropping up in The War Room at unexpected moments.
Early on, for example, we’re given a brief glimpse of candidate Bill Clinton backstage, on the phone with an unnamed aide. For a moment, Clinton and the camera lock gazes, a look that breaks the tacit agreement between observer and observed, and forces the viewer to recognize the fact that they’re watching a construct. (Given the film’s frenetic pacing, it’s often easy to forget.) The more you know about the circumstances behind The War Room, in fact, the more you’re conscious of what a crazy-quilt patchwork it really is. The filmmakers seamlessly stitch together various pieces of archival news footage that fill in the early crises and scandals faced by the Clinton campaign, footage the filmmakers shot of the DNC in New York, and a single foray on the campaign trail, leaving viewers with the understandable yet erroneous impression that they had somehow glommed onto all-access passes, when in reality they were largely confined to the eponymous “nerve center” itself. Moreover, the election-night finale almost didn’t come about at all; the footage of Bill and Hillary in front of the Governor’s mansion was only obtained because cameraman Nick Doob snuck past security and wormed his way to the front of the crowd.
The buddy-film dynamic between braniac lead strategist James Carville and telegenic communications director George Stephanopoulos provides The War Room with a compelling through line and emotional cornerstone, while the film’s popular and critical success reciprocally catapulted both men to celebrity status. Carville would have something resembling an acting career, popping up in various self-deprecating cameos, as well as attempting honest-to-goodness dramatic roles in films like The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Stephanopoulos got a gig hosting Good Morning, America. More to the point, Carville left an indelible mark on the language of modern politics with cracker-barrel catchphrases like “It’s the economy, stupid.” Above and beyond their admittedly continued relevance, these terse populist apothegms presage the domination of sound bite-friendly, round-the-clock spin cycles currently washing over the American electorate.
Shot with lightweight 16mm cameras and synch-sound recording equipment, and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, The War Room was never intended to win any prizes judged on aesthetic merits alone, its handheld camerawork, all swish-pans and frantic focus-pulling, meant to create the impression of fly-on-the-wall authenticity that was the hallmark of the Direct Cinema movement long before it became arguably the dominant visual paradigm of our new media-crazed era. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that Criterion’s transfer, produced directly from the 16mm negative, looks pretty damn good in 1080p, with grain levels only now and then overpowering the image, and little in the way of artifacts, other than what stems from the inclusion of archival news footage. The Master Audio track makes all but the most garbled dialogue clearly audible, and renders with real zest the old-timey 78rpm recordings that bookend the film: Ella Fitzgerald’s peppy rendition of "Vote for Mr. Rhythm," and Jack Teagarden and his orchestra swinging their way through "I Swung the Election."
A ballot box stuffed with extras, The War Room also includes Return of the War Room, the 2008 follow-up that fills in some of the original narrative’s ellipses, explores how the war room concept effected later campaigns, and catches up with key players like James Carville and Georges Stephanopoulos on the eve of the 2008 election. Our nomination for canniest moment: Paul Begala likens the approach of the Democratic Party during the ’92 election to a scene from Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables where Sean Connery’s character chides an assailant for "bringing a knife to a gunfight." A panel discussion from 2011 at the William J. Clinton Foundation turns into a one-man show after Bill Clinton himself grabs the mike. Clinton immediately switches on that patented cornpone charm, cracking jokes and dishing up anecdotes about the campaign, all the while keeping one eye firmly on his historical legacy. Next up are a series of short interviews: campaign aide Stan Greenberg opines about the "deep analysis" that goes into the polling process, camera operator Nick Doob describes his technique as more stubbornly intrusive than fly-on-the-wall, and producer Frazer Pennebaker discusses how The War Room was strategically handled by distributor October Films and ran for months in the D.C. area, becoming a hot date-night activity for wannabe politicos. Finally, there’s a 40-minute retrospective piece, filmed amid the memorabilia-packed clutter of D.A. Pennebaker’s offices, reunites co-directors Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus with producers R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger in order to reminisce about making The War Room, especially the tricky task of gaining access to the campaign in the first place, and how they converted those initial limitations from a hindrance to an advantage, sacrificing all-inclusive narrative sprawl for a leaner character-driven storyline. Louis Menand’s essay adeptly lays out the connections between The War Room and its documentary brethren.
Make your choice for Hegedus and Pennebaker’s The War Room, given an outstanding high-def Blu-ray transfer, and supplied with a full arsenal of supplementary features, by the Criterion Collection.