The War Room (1993)


Chris Hegedus
D. A. Pennebaker
Directors of Photography:
Nick Doob
D.A. Pennebaker
Kevin Rafferty

Running time: 96 minutes

D.A. Pennebaker knows how to pick the right candidate – a political candidate who is not the favourite to win but who brings with him a sense that things are about to change big time.  He became the father of political American “Direct Cinema” in 1960 when he filmed John F. Kennedy’s campaign in New Hampshire, which ended in a win, propelling him forward and enabled him to capture the nomination of the Democratic Party. The film was called Primary and it changed the face of the documentary film.

The War Room starts in New Hampshire in January 1992, where William J. Clinton, former governor of Arkansas, is preparing to win the state, but he loses to Paul Tsongas from neighbouring Massachusetts. It is curious to see all of the names of the candidates who participated in this primary back on screen. I was too young at the time to be caught up in the minutiae of the process, but it is wonderful, as we approach another election cycle, to look back at this field and their obstacles and be reminded of the repetition that is nonetheless always exciting because the participants bring new baggage every time.

The film opens with the accusations made by Jennifer Flowers against Governor Clinton, complete with the tape recordings to prove it; she alleged that Clinton had had an affair with her reaching back many years. Of course, we now know today that she should not have been ignored as quickly as she was, and it does appear rather odd that his own campaign never questions their own candidate, but I guess that is normal for presidential candidates’ campaign staff. It is made obvious, and his senior adviser James Carville acknowledges as much, that everybody thinks Bill Clinton is the perfect candidate, the only one they would spend their time and their energy on to promote, and they believe in him so completely that they prefer not to get involved in any negativity about him.

Perhaps he never would have been elected if they had questioned him, and the country would have been worse off as a result.

Besides Carville, who is the main attack dog and chief strategist for the campaign, there is the young George Stephanopoulos, his communications director, who would later act briefly as Clinton’s press secretary in the White House. These two guys have total confidence in Clinton’s abilities and inspire us with their attitude of getting the message out that (George HW) Bush has been a failure as a president, despite his skills as a politician.

The film follows the campaign from New Hampshire through the primary process to the eventual nomination at the Democratic Convention and ultimately ending on November 3 with the general election. A lot of material has to be squeezed into this film and obviously, when the film was released in 1993, many things could be left unsaid. Today, that is a problem because we are left with questions that go unanswered and expectations that are often unfulfilled. We don’t know what the pay-off was, because we are looking at a kind of shorthand that is difficult to decipher after nearly twenty years have passed.

For example, while much is made of the upcoming appearance of his Democratic competitor Jerry Brown at the convention (he was going to make like Ted Kennedy in 1980 and ruffle feathers because he had not collected the most delegates), we never see his speech. We also learn that Perot withdraws from the race only to re-enter a few weeks later, without much fanfare either in the media or in Clinton’s campaign headquarters. Bush is like a barking dog in the background: we are aware of him but we don’t see him all that much. We know he seems hesitant to debate Clinton (citing issues with the format of the debate), but there too the film puts very little information on the screen.

The most important thing to remember while we watch this film is that it is about the “war room”, in other words, it is about Carville and Stephanopoulos and their tactics, and not really about Bill Clinton. It is fascinating to watch Carville come up with a political barnburner on the spot, the product of his passion for the moment, his enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy and his political savvy.

The camera’s mobility is a great advantage for putting us in the “present” with the events – in particular, when we run through the corridors backstage with George Stephanopoulos after the presidential debate, when he has to make his way to the media gaggle as soon as possible to comment on the evening’s proceedings.

For anyone who follows politics, it is also nice to see much younger faces of those who are still very visible on television. People like Paul Begala, Mark Halperin and John King.

Finally, on the election night, the film comes to an end. And while we all know how the story ends, it is the team behind the scenes that make this a story to really appreciate. The emotion of team Carville-Stephanopoulos at the last war room meeting is beautiful and pure and the film should be studied by every political campaign against an incumbent. For the rest of us, it offers a moment of reflection. Are all these fights important? Would it have made a difference? And how is it possible that Roger Ailes still peddles so much influence?

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