THE WAR ROOM – Blu-ray review

Once it gets its motor revved up, “The War Room” rockets along at such breakneck speed that it’s difficult even to find a logical place on the DVD to hit pause for a bathroom break.  This might not be the sort of quality you expect from a political documentary, but the atmosphere in “the war room” of the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign is electric as the team races to diffuse crises and grab each new opportunity by the jugular on their determined march to the white house.

It makes for an undeniably exciting film, but also, I suspect, a fairly shoddy portrait of what it’s like to work on a presidential campaign.  An old saying about poker tournaments is that they consist of hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.  “The War Room” eliminated what must have been months of boredom, a long slog of volunteers copying flyers, crunching numbers and placing phone calls, and stitches together only the moments of adrenaline and caffeine-fueled excitement at several crucial junctures.  It’s a blast to watch, but a superficial experience that’s limited on insight.

Perhaps it could not have been made any other way.  The filmmakers (co-directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and producers R.J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger, and Frazer Pennebaker) had originally hoped to follow Clinton across the country, but were denied access to the candidate.  Only as a backup plan did they seek permission to film Clinton’s campaign team, and only through a minor miracle (and perhaps a little ego stroking) did they achieve that.  They were restricted almost entirely to the titular War Room where, by a happy coincidence, they discovered a couple of stars who would burn every bit as bright on camera as the man from Hope, Arkansas.

Campaign manager James Carville was already well-known as the Ragin’ Cajun among politicos, but was largely an unknown factor the public.  His firebrand personality and mastery of the good ol’ country-boy  quote made him the easiest sell a film crew could hope for, and also set the mid-40s veteran up as the perfect contrast to the handsome, and quietly dogged George Stephanopolous, Clinton’s communications directly who had recently turned 30 but was probably used to still getting carded at local bars.  At least by bartenders who didn’t melt under the gaze of his puppy-dog eyes.

With two pre-fabbed movie stars already in hand, Pennebaker, Hegedus and their camera crew just had to follow in their wake (easier said than done, of course), partly at the Democratic convention but mostly at war room meetings.  Carville comes off as a dashing hero bursting with unflagging energy and righteous charm, which should be a lesson in the power of film to distort.  Stephanopolous (whose office was at a separate location) prefers to lurk on the periphery, but is capable of taking center stage when needed to defend his candidate, and his youthful idealism provides one the film’s most moving moments when he all but says, “Gee willikers, did we really just win?”

The film is packed with nifty incidents that reflect the ebb and flow of a campaign that can plan all it wants, but still has to react to unexpected events, something Clinton provided in unending supply.  The campaigners are all fully immersed in the moment, and every minor issue feels like it could not only make or break the campaign, but could change the course of Western civilization… until a few hours later when they’ve moved on to the next epochal sound bite or bombshell discovery.  From Gennifer Flowers to Ross Perot to “Printergate,” the flow is relentless and the mobile cameras immerse the viewer in it all.  As an added bonus, we get to see the earliest stages of one of the most bizarre and terrifying-if-you-ever-stop-to-think-about-it romances of modern times, the courtship of James Carville and Mary Matalin, then working as deputy campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, Clinton’s incumbent opposition.

It’s so intoxicating that sometimes it’s easy forget we are, in effect, watching a couple of pitch men selling that year’s newest brand of soap to a fully researched, poked and prodded public ready and eager to respond to every tag line tossed at them.  It’s somewhat less easy to forget that, after a campaign that milked “Don’t let them give tax breaks to their rich cronies” for all it was worth, Clinton’s presidency witnessed a further acceleration in the transfer of wealth to the elite.  Oh well, a documentary filmed in the moment is best appreciated the same way, and it’s a pretty fun trip even if the trip didn’t take us where we wanted to go.

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  Filmed in 16mm and mixing in ample news footage, “The War Room” isn’t exactly a prime candidate for a high-def transfer.  It still looks a bit soft and grainy, but the image is strong if not eye-popping throughout.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is clean and efficient though hardly dynamic, and is surely not meant to be.  All of the dialogue is clearly audible and you occasionally get a sense of depth from the busy war room setting.  Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has provided an impressive and extensive collection of extras.

The collection starts with an excerpt (26 min.) from the 2011 William J. Clinton foundation panel in which some of the campaigners (including James Carville) reflect on the New Hampshire primary.  Clinton pays a “surprise” visit.

“Return of The War Room” (82 min.) is a 2008 documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker which reunites the chief players of “The War Room” (minus Clinton) to reflect on their experiences on the film as well as the manner in which the ’92 campaign allegedly shaped all those that followed.  I’m not sure it’s quite the history-changing event they make it out to be, but these guys are paid to oversell, after all.  And this collection of interviews is quite compelling, a perfect companion piece to the film.

“Making the War Room” (41 min.) is a 2011 sit down with directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus along with two of the film’s producers, R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger.  They talk extensively about the challenges they had both in setting up the film and then in shooting it.  So-called “direct cinema” provides the illusion of simplicity, but can be immensely complicated to coordinate.  The disc also includes shorter recollections on the film’s production by producer Frazer Pennebaker (9 min.) and camera man Nick Doob (6 min.)

Stanley Greenberg, seen in a few scenes in the film, sits down for this Nov 2011 interview (11 min.) to discuss the role that polling played in the campaign and how it has changed since.  The collection wraps up with a 2-minute Trailer.

The 12-page insert booklet includes an essay by writer and English professor Louis Menand.

Film Value:
“The War Room” is probably one hell of a recruitment vehicle for aspiring politicos, though I expect they’ll be disenchanted once they find out it’s not all one long adrenaline rush.  Whatever concerns I have about the film’s superficial engagement with the process are compensated for by its ability to fully immerse viewers in the moment.  The power of direct cinema (if we could still call it that by 1992) is on display here – the sense of immediacy is tangible and quite invigorating.  Look elsewhere for deeper understanding.  The extras on this BD are top notch as well.