Men behind the curtain

The selling of the presidential product

Published: Nov 08 2016, 01:01:am

Sunday, May 29, 1994.

THE WAR ROOM. No writing or music credits. Edited and directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: Occasional very coarse language.
    They’re found along frontage roads and the campaign trail, and they’re examined in two new non-fiction features: Aileen Wuornos — The Selling of a Serial Killer and The War Room.
    *    *    *
    Cinéma vérité icon Don Alan Pennebaker stalks his “killers” in The War Room. Famous for his backstage features chronicling the lives of pop stars, the Illinois-born documentarist here records the inner workings of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.
    Pennebaker, working with his wife and co-director Chris Hegedus, uses the traditional (since the 1960s) wait-and-watch filming technique. Given access to Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters, he saw professional political strategist “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville and boyish communications director George Stephanopoulos emerge as the “stars” of his show.
    Carville is the charismatic, self-appointed giant-killer, dedicated to defeating incumbent George [H.W.] Bush. Stephanopoulos, by contrast, comes across as an idealist, a true believer supporting a candidate who will bring about necessary social change.
    A must-see feature for political junkies, Pennebaker’s picture is intrinsically interesting for the historic moment that it captures.
     Non-aficionados — filmgoers not aware of the intimate nature of Carville’s relationship with Bush campaigner Mary Matalin, for example — may find the director’s choice of footage adds up to less than the promised excitement.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1994. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: No stranger to recording political campaigners, Illinois-born D.A. Pennebaker was the editor on cinéma vérité pioneer Robert Drew’s Primary, an inside look at the 1960 Wisconsin election during which John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey fought for the Democratic presidential nomination. He’s arguably best known for Dont Look Back (sic), the influential 1967 documentary feature that chronicled the 1965 British concert tour of Bob Dylan, most recently in the news for winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. The War Room earned the Pennebaker-Hegedus team an Academy Award nomination for best feature documentary. Although their dominant focus has been on musical performers, they spent two years assembling the footage for their 2006 feature, Al Franken: God Spoke, a serious look at the political comedian-turned-senatorial candidate.
    James Carville, the political consultant who emerged as the star of The War Room, is credited with coining the the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid." In October 1993, he married Mary Matalin. They wed 11 months after the election of Bill Clinton, and two months before the release of Pennebaker’s film. Carville worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination, and has worked as a Clinton “surrogate” spokesperson during her 2016 campaign.
     The film's other star, George Stephanopoulos, went on to serve as a senior policy advisor to President Bill Clinton during his first term. He resigned in 1996, and went to work for ABC News as a political analyst, eventually becoming the host of This Week, the TV network’s Sunday morning public affairs chat show. Sunday (November 6), the politically partisan journalist’s wife, Alexandra Wentworth, told The Hollywood Reporter that “If Trump wins, we’ll start looking at real estate in Sydney, Australia. No crime, no guns.”