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The War Room
Directors: Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker
Features: James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Heather Beckel, Paul Begala, Bob Boorstin, Michael Donnilon, Jeff Eller, Stanley Greenberg, Mandy Grunwald, Harold Ickes, Mickey Kantor, Mary Matalin, Mitchell Schwartz, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Gennifer Flowers, Tipper Gore, Al Gore
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1993
Country: U.S.
The War Room Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The War Room Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room is one of those great accidental documentaries whose Plan B turned out to be infinitely more fascinating and historically worthwhile than its Plan A. Hegedus and Pennebaker had originally wanted to make a film about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign with a focus on Clinton himself, but they were denied access to the Arkansas governor and instead trained their cameras on his political operatives, who were either naïve or daring enough to allow them to film the inner workings of the campaign.

Most of the action we see in the The War Room takes place in the titular office in Little Rock, where the campaign was orchestrated and fires were put out by a crack team of political advisors who recognized that the voting public was looking for some kind of change. Seen in the rearview mirror of two decades, we see how the politics in The War Room reflect the here and now, if on a different scale. The film begins with two of the biggest controversies of the campaign—Gennifer Flowers’s claim that she had been Clinton’s lover for 12 years and questions about his antiwar activities and draft dodging—were already in full swing, and the filmmakers borrow unused footage from a previous film, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s Feed (1992), to bring the viewer up to speed. By a stroke of pure luck, part of the unused footage documents the arrival of political advisor James Carville, also known as the Ragin’ Cajun, and the speech he gives to Clinton’s political team outlining his goals and intents. Rafferty and Ridgeway couldn’t ever find use for the footage in their film, but Hegedus and Pennebaker clearly realized that it was gold: a true star’s entrance.

With his high forehead, jutting brows, and angled eyes, Carville has the unconventional look of an alien (a look that has only intensified with age), and the filmmakers were initially doubtful that he would be anything other than an amusing distraction. Yet, whenever he’s on screen, Carville commands attention with both his quick wit (he describes the current President, George H.W. Bush, as being like an old calendar) and brutal honesty. Those who disagree with him may loathe him in the abstract, but watching him work in The War Room confirms his political genius, particularly the manner in which he boils everything down to the basics (“It’s the economy, stupid,” was one of the reigning mantras of the campaign).

Carville does not star in the film alone, though, as he works alongside communications director George Stephanopoulos, who is in every way his opposite except in his fervent belief that Bill Clinton should be the next President of the United States. Short and conventionally handsome in a glad-handing, boyish sort of way, Stephanopoulos is Carville’s physical opposite. And, whereas Carville comes across as cunning and shrewd and always looking for a killshot, Stephanopoulos has a sincerity about him that you can’t help but like. It’s no wonder the campaign sent him to 60 Minutes to tamp down the accusations of draft dodging and other sticky business.

Hegedus and Pennebaker (who have been married since 1970) were already veteran documentary filmmakers in the early ’90s. Pennebaker was one of the founders of the Direct Cinema movement, which helped reinvent documentary filmmaking in the 1960s by insisting on an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style that is exemplified in The War Room. Pennebaker had already made several legendary rock documentaries, including Dont Look Back (1967) about the ever amorphous Bob Dylan and Monterey Pop (1968), the first ever concert film. Hegedus and Pennebaker had already collaborated on nearly a dozen films, including documentaries about Jerry Lee Lewis, Branford Marsalis, and John DeLorean. They had made some political documentaries, including Town Bloody Hall (1979), which documents the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” at New York City’s Town Hall chaired by Norman Mailer in 1971, and The Energy War (1977), a five-hour film chronicling the Congressional battle over Jimmy Carter’s bill to deregulate natural gas. Pennebaker, as one of the founding members of Drew Associates with the Maysles brothers and Richard Leacock, had also collaborated on Primary (1960), which documented the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary for Time-Life’s “Living Camera” series.

Yet, despite a rich history of political campaign films, The War Room feels different. Again, part of this was sheer chance, as the political climate was changing dramatically in the early 1990s as Clinton was attempting to usher in the era of the “New Democrat,” a more centrist positioning of traditional Democratic principles that found favor with a wide swath of the American public. As two of the chief orchestrators of the campaign, Carville and Stephanopoulos are duly fascinating, and even though we get the sense that they are constantly aware of the camera’s presence, there are plenty of genuine moments of emotion and candor, such as when Carville breaks into tears when speaking to the other staffers after the election is in hand and Stephanopoulos telling Clinton over the phone that his work on the campaign is the most important thing he’s ever done. When the project was first underway, it must have seemed a terrible blow not to get access to Clinton himself (who appears in some scenes and in news footage), but it turned out to be the best possible circumstance as it forced the filmmakers to train their cameras in new directions, in the process documenting one small part of a seismic shift in modern politics.

The War Rom Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The War Room is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Return of the War Room (2008) documentary
  • Video interview with directors D.A Pennebaker and Chris Hedegus and producers R.J. Cutler, and Wendy Ettinger
  • Video interview with producer Frazer Pennebaker
  • Video interview with camera operator Nick Doob
  • Video interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg
  • Panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by writer Louis Menand
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateMarch 20, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s new 2K high-definition transfer of The War Room was made from the original 16mm camera negative and digitally restored. The film is never going to look outstanding, given that it was shot in the smaller format using mostly available light and also splices in video and television footage, but this transfer has it looking about as good as it possibly can. There is a presence of grain throughout and a slight softness to the 16mm footage, but it still maintains notable detail and clarity. Colors look natural, if a bit muted, and there are no instances of obvious DNR or artifacting. The two-channel soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic audio tracks and digitally restored. Most of the soundtrack consists of dialogue (some of which is a bit muffled and difficult to understand given the circumstances under which the sound was recorded), although there is some nondiegetic music (notably Ella Fitzgerald’s “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” and Glenn Miller’s “I Swung the Election”) that sounds very nice.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion’s The War Room Blu-Ray comes with an impressive set of supplements. First of all, it is essentially a double-feature disc since it includes Return of the War Room, a 2008 feature-length documentary by Hegedus and Pennebaker produced for the Sundance Channel that revisits James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala, and others, allowing them to reflect on the ’92 Presidential campaign, the film itself, and the changes in politics since then (Mary Matalin, who appears only in news footage in The War Room, also gets some extensive interview time). Under the heading “Making The War Room” we get three new video interviews about the film’s difficult production: a 41-minute interview with directors D.A Pennebaker and Chris Hedegus and producers R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger; a 9-minute interview with producer Frazer Pennebaker; and a 7-minute interview with camera operator Nick Doob. There is also a 10-minute interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg (who appears in the film) on the role of polling in political elections and video footage of a recent panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation that features Carville, Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, journalist Ron Brownstein, and Bill Clinton himself, who commandeers the microphone for a good portion of the time.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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