With the UK’s General Election now over, those curious about what goes on behind the scenes of an election campaign may find interest in The War Room, a documentary produced by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus as they followed the campaign staff of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run.
Trailing the team from the early New Hampshire primary – at which point no-one thought Clinton was a genuine contender – all the way up to the hours following the announcement of his victory, Pennebaker and Hegedus focus primarily on James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, two leading members of the campaign team.
Pennebaker was one of the pioneers of Direct Cinema, a movement reaching its peak here before trends gave way to the more self-referential styles of Michael Moore and Errol Morris; rather than interviewing the subjects or provoking the action, the camera stands back and takes an objective approach. What this results in is a naturalistic and very real-seeming depiction of the ups and downs of the campaign, as well as a growing understanding of the two staffers and their differing approach to the job – the straight-talking, authoritative Carville and the smoother, more telegenic Stephanopoulos.
While we can question to what extent the media-savvy subjects are playing up to the camera, Carville and Stephanopoulos’ dynamism gives the film the appeal of a buddy movie, and multiple surprisingly emotional moments are captured; towards the end of the campaign, Stephanopoulos breaks down on the phone: “as I was driving to work, I started to cry. I just can’t cope right now.”
There are limits, of course, to the documentarians’ access. Not only did Clinton refuse to be filmed after it became clear he had a chance of winning, but the filmmakers weren’t able to shoot the entirety of the campaign – rather, the Democratic party would call to let them know when something worth filming was due to happen. It’s difficult not to wonder what the finished product would have been like had the camera been a permanent presence.
Nevertheless, The War Room is an insightful document of the intensities and stresses of political campaigning, as well as an energetic study of two characters weathering the heart of the storm. Having been studied by George Clooney and Ryan Gosling in preparation for their own campaign trail movie, The Ides of March, it’s as close as it may be possible to get to the reality behind electoral politics.