I can't help it. It's a reflex action. I hear the word "documentary" and some uncontrollable voice from deep within me screams, "Boring!" I realize it's an irrational response; after all, I've seen plenty of entertaining documentaries. Then again, most of them have had something to do with rock music, such as Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, and Monterey Pop. But last year's Panama Deception held my attention without benefit of a rock and roll soundtrack, as did the more recent Franaois Truffaut biopic, Stolen Portraits.
And unlike many of my colleagues here in the New Times editorial department, I am not a news junkie. I rarely read our own paper (too much news, not enough movie reviews) much less the Herald. CNN? Give me a break. I finally accepted cable into my life two months ago; since then my TV has settled into a more or less permanent groove, bouncing back and forth between the Comedy Channel and MTV.
I share these titillating revelations not because of some pathologically narcissistic need to bare my soul, but as prologue to my review of a thoroughly engrossing bit of motion picture entertainment that also, amazingly enough, happens to be a documentary. I'm hoping you are a more mature and sophisticated viewer than I, and that you won't dismiss a movie out of hand because it happens to be nonfiction. And in the unlikely event that you are an irredeemable slug, maybe the endorsement of a fellow ne'er-do-well will carry some weight.
A movie as good as D.A. Pennebaker's and Chris Hegedus's Academy Award-nominated The War Room deserves an audience. Their behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on the Clinton campaign trail from the New Hampshire primary to the eve of the 1992 presidential election is a spellbinding portrait of the selling of a candidate. Voter dissatisfaction with Bush, Clinton's stands on jobs and health care, Perot's candidacy, the former Arkansas governor's charisma, and early financial backing from deep-pockets Wall Street money men all contributed to the Democratic victory at the polls. But The War Room only touches on those topics. It is James Carville and George Stephanopoulos who share star billing in this enthralling but biased peek under the hood at the strategic engine powering the Clinton political bus.
I can't use the old warts-and-all cliche to describe the movie's openly admiring portrayal of the tireless young turk strategists who took a lumbering, punch-drunk Democratic Party and turned it into a lean, mean, fighting machine. The movie is surprisingly candid at times, but you never see the Clinton people cracking under pressure, blowing their stacks unreasonably, or committing any major blunders, tactical or otherwise. Maybe they didn't do any of those things, but it's more likely that the filmmakers either weren't rolling the cameras at those times, were denied access when the going got rough, or chose to edit out any really embarrassing incidents. If you're looking for a reason to quibble, the film's positive spin would be it. But The War Room does not pretend to be an evenhanded critical analysis of the Clinton campaign. It should be viewed as a remarkable portrait of two brash young men who helped change the face of American politics, composed by a pair of veteran film documentarians at the top of their game.
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"Speed Killed...Bush" reads one of Carville's T-shirts. The War Room hammers home the point that Carville and the rest of these new-breed fixers and their aggressive, rapid-response attack may not only have gotten their man into the White House, but may also have revolutionized the way political campaigns are run. (At one point they improvise an important television spot in a little under two hours, and Carville, still not satisfied, has to be reminded by his coworkers that the process normally takes two days.) Whether exhorting a ragtag handful of volunteers to overcome the potentially lethal Gennifer Flowers allegations before the New Hampshire primary or, when last-minute negative polling data indicate Bush might win, extemporizing an imaginary Clinton concession speech the day before the election, Carville is electrifying onscreen. He seems larger than life, like Patton with a Cajun accent. Had The War Room been fiction, Carville's performance would be Best Actor material.
In fact, it's hard to imagine any living Hollywood actor doing a better job with the role. (Malkovich bears some physical resemblance but he's too low-key for the part.) It's a bravura performance: Carville wired on a diet of coffee, Skittles, and Tums, pronouncing the incumbent president's first name in a derisive Cajun drawl ("Jawgh Boosh"), holding forth on Bush's dated appeal ("He's so yesterday, if I think of yesterday I think of an old calendar with George Bush's face on it!"), or shaking his head at Ross Perot's on-again, off-again candidacy ("the most expensive single act of masturbation in history"). Perhaps the film's most telling moment is a scene where a group of scrubbed and polished young campaign staffers admire a bottle of vintage spirits older than they are and hand it to Carville for his perusal. "Look at it, hell!" he says as he grabs the bottle and walks off to drink it. James Carville is no policy wonk.
Stephanopoulos, while not as riveting a personality (and make no mistake, this is as much a movie about personality as it is politics), makes a preternaturally composed puppy to Carville's pit bull. He's cute and playful throughout A at one point he even blows a bubble while chewing gum during a telephone interview, then takes a swig of soda a second later. If Carville is a Malkovich-Scott hybrid, Stephanopoulos is strictly Michael J. Fox. His preppy cool serves as the perfect dramatic counterpoint to Carville's manic intensity.
While Carville and Stephanopoulos weren't a team in the strictest sense of the word (Carville's partner was Paul Begala), The War Room derives much of its strength from their chemistry. It sucks you in as you ride through the highs and lows of the presidential race, sharing their glee and sweating out their suspense all the way. Watching them work the phones, alternately stroke and cajole the press, pore over the speeches, push their fellow staffers, and generally pull strings and influence people, you get the distinct impression that the former Arkansas governor might still be governor were it not for the efforts of these two remarkable men.