Bill, James and George's Excellent Adventure: Back in 'The War Room'
By Paul Stekler
Once upon a time, James Carville was a little-known Louisiana political consultant whose signature achievement was engineering an upset Democratic win in a special election for Senate in Pennsylvania in 1991. George Stephanopoulos was a young man on the rise, who'd gone from Fall River, Massachusetts, to being a top staffer for Democratic Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO). But after The War Room, the classic political documentary film from DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, just reissued for this year's presidential election, they were national celebrities.
Available on its 20th anniversary as a new, restored, high-definition digital transfer Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, The War Room, which was produced by R.J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger and Frazer Pennebaker, reminds one of the amazing access the filmmakers had to a presidential campaign-the kind of access that no one is liable to see again any time soon. They also had the great luck of being in the right place to document the amazing rise and fall and rise and fall and ultimate victory of Bill Clinton. He was the definition of the comeback kid: impossible not to watch, whether you liked or hated him.
But then, this "Bill Clinton film" had the even greater luck to stumble onto the greatest buddy story in the history of films about American politics: Carville and Stephanopoulos. And the former in particular, long before he became a ubiquitous presence on pundit TV and a walking caricature of a Cajun wild man, was one of a kind, a hall-of-fame documentary character. From the dreary snows of New Hampshire in January to the joy of victory in Little Rock 11 months later, what a story it was.
Is that really Clinton, in a t-shirt, shorts and baseball cap, on the phone telling stories to the press? It's priceless footage, shot by Kevin Rafferty, Nick Doob and DA Pennebaker, with Carville, Stephanopoulos, advisor Paul Begala and media consultant Mandy Grunwald sitting around Clinton's hotel room, reading the morning papers, laughing at the stories. And looking so young!
There's Gennifer Flowers, with her physics-defying big hair, smirking through reporter's questions about condoms and partisan payoffs, interwoven with Clinton spinning the press, Carville denouncing those who seek to destroy, Hillary Clinton front and center on the stump, and Stephanopoulos on television attacking the attackers. It feels like a practice run for Monica Lewinsky six years later.
And then there's that hand-signer signing "Domino" at a rally, one of the many, did-I-just-see-that shots that may last just a few seconds, but put you smack in the middle of the surreal whirl that is a national campaign. Outside of the "war room" at the Clinton national campaign headquarters, we never seem to be in one place long enough to wonder where we are and what's going on in the rest of the campaign. And magically it works, putting us squarely in the exhaustion and constant turmoil over every news cycle that is the modern 24-hour campaign.
One of my favorite scenes features our boys, with pollster Stan Greenberg sitting in on the fun, as they torture Grunwald on a conference call, all over the exact words of a 30-second TV ad. Carville is obsessed with getting the phrase "read my lips" in somewhere, while Stephanopoulos is rewriting to get them an extra second of time--or even a half second. You can hear her frustration, and see young staffers in the background, watching from afar and grinning. And once the phone is down, Carville announces that just once, he wants to hear a media person not tell him it can't be done. Everyone laughs. Can running a national campaign really be this much fun?
The film does spend a lot of time on the illusion of a scandal. Is the President George H. W. Bush campaign really paying printers in Brazil to produce their signs? There's a crazy, distorted news piece in Portuguese, showing Bush signs rolling off a huge press. Our stars can't let go of the story, making up hypothetical campaign ads ("Bush finally has a jobs program; too bad it's in Rio"). They try and fail to get the press to bite on the story. And Carville, waving his arms, proclaims to no one in particular, "I like the way this feels."
Can we ever get enough of this younger Carville, a guy we were just getting to know in this film? There he is, telling a reporter, "Every time I think of an old calendar, I think of George Bush's face on it." And responding to a question about what Bill Clinton as a student was doing visiting Moscow in his youth, "How the hell do I know what he did there?" And watching the final Perot campaign event on TV, as the wacky Texas billionaire dances to "Crazy" with his wife, and declaring the campaign, "the single greatest act of masturbation in history." And carrying on a romance with Mary Matalin, his opposite in the Bush campaign. They only meet once in the film, with the "secret" camera rolling as they walk and talk like normal human beings who miss each other. And then, in the dark, we hear them kiss goodbye!
The camera seems to be everywhere: Close up on Stephanopoulos' face as he blows gum bubbles while going through his daily calls to reporters...following him and Clinton through the passages of the convention center, en route to the candidate's acceptance speech as Democratic nominee...capturing Greenberg reading the latest poll results to a rapt room of top staffers, and Matalin singing "Hey, Good Lookin'" to a confused reporter before a presidential debate...and literally running after folks racing to the post-debate spin room, then cutting from one spinner to another, each in his/her own press scrum. And finally, there's the look on Stephanopoulos' assistant's face on the night that they win, as she asks her boss, "How do you feel? Are you happy? Or scared? Or nothing? Or what?"
I remember that first time I saw The War Room, and how moved I was by Carville's final speech to the staff in the real war room, the night before the election. He fought back tears and told them, "The most sacred thing one can give is your labor," followed by, "I think the Governor is going to change America." Then I began to cry.
Times change. Our politics has gotten a lot more dysfunctional. We're more ideologically divided. Hope turns into hard reality. Politics definitely doesn't seem like much fun these days. But the best campaigns promise something. And they make us feel like we're part of something larger.
On the stage, as he accepts the win that the American people have given him that Election Day 20 years ago, Clinton calls out his staff: "I want to thank the members of my brilliant, aggressive, unconventional, but always winning campaign staff." So do we, the viewers of a film that's hardly aged, want to thank them, those happy warriors, the true stars here. We've been given a rare look inside a winning campaign, a real witness to history. And we have felt the joy and the triumph that our politics ought to give us.
Yes, we have.
Paul Stekler, who has made films about American politics for 30 years, is also the chair of the Radio-Television-Film program at the University of Texas in Austin.
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