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Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics - A Conversation with R.J. Cutler

By Sadie Tillery

From R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor’s '>A Perfect Candidate'. Courtesy of POV

Editor's Note: At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last spring, filmmaker R.J. Cutler was invited to curate the festival's Thematic Program—which, in this presidential election year, focused on politics, political campaigns and the electoral process, as reflected in six decades of docmaking. Cutler, whose distinguished canon of docs includes The War Room, A Perfect Candidate and The World According to Dick Cheney, relished the opportunity to assemble a program that reflects not only the intrinsic drama of the democratic apparatus over the course of American history, but also the dynamic evolution of the documentary form.

What follows is an excerpted conversation, via email, between Cutler and Full Frame's director of programming, Sadie Tillery.


SADIE TILLERY: Let's start at the beginning. Robert Drew made Primary in 1960 and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment in 1963. Landmark documentary films, in terms of cinéma vérité and in terms of documenting political processes. How have those titles influenced the political documentary genre?

R.J. CUTLER: There are many ways to view these films, but those who choose to do so chronologically will experience a narrative of both American politics and documentary filmmaking over a 65-year span. Primary and Crisis provide a Rosetta stone to both of those narratives. Joining Bob Drew on the filmmaking adventure for both films were Ricky Leacock, Al Maysles and DA Pennebaker, a Murderers' Row of vérité filmmakers who would go on to create the most important and influential films of the genre for decades to come.

With Primary, of course, we see two young senators—future president Jack Kennedy and future vice president Hubert Humphrey—battling for the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary. The story of this campaign is told using what was at the time breakthrough technology: a hand-held camera synced to a portable sound recorder so that filmmaker and subject are equally mobile. Moving from private places to public, the camera brings viewers inside the campaign as the candidates themselves are experiencing it, and reveals the subjects in ways that had never been seen before. As a result we witness Kennedy and Humphrey as they experience startling moments of transformation and revelation, which turn out to be defining cornerstones of each of the vérité films in this program. Remarkable moments range from the mundane (JFK enters a building, walks through a crowd, maneuvers backstage, and takes the stage, where he joins his wife and brother Bobby) to the sublime (both Humphrey and Kennedy await the results of the primary, and we gaze into their eyes and perhaps even their souls, as they contemplate the implications of both victory and defeat).

In Crisis the connection to the subjects goes even deeper. It's 1963, JFK is president and Bobby is attorney general. Their antagonist is Governor George Wallace of Alabama, whose inaugural address featured his declaration, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." When we meet him, Wallace has just declared that he will not allow African Americans to register at the University of Alabama, regardless of what the Supreme Court has decided.

As a showdown develops, Drew and his collaborators are given remarkable access. Building upon the relationships they developed with the Kennedys during the campaign, there is clearly a foundation of trust between subject and filmmakers, and in Alabama, Wallace takes to the filmmaking process like a fish to water. The drama surrounding the showdown is powerful and emotional, and even features the federalization of the National Guard, which goes from being under Wallace's command to President Kennedy's at what seems to be a moment's notice. But the film's true greatness comes from its presentation of the moral maturation of President Kennedy, who, at the relentless urging of his brother, determines to engage Wallace and his vision of America head-on despite the fact that it might jeopardize his presumed upcoming re-election bid. The film culminates with Kennedy's televised address to the nation only weeks before his assassination, in which he exhorts the American people to look into our hearts on matters of race and equality, and decide what kind of a people we truly want to be.

From its inception, one of the defining conceits of the vérité movement was that real people—Bible salesmen, high school students, popular musicians, politicians—could be every bit as compelling on screen as actors. Shot observationally by filmmakers who had earned their trust, these subjects could carry entire films by themselves. In the political realm, with Primary and Crisis, we see that come to pass.

From Drew Associates’ <em<Primary</em>. Courtesy of Drew Associates

Do you think it is still possible to make political films like that today? The world is much more conscious of being recorded—and what's recorded can be shared in ways that weren't possible in the 1960s. I wonder if that has an impact on access and authenticity.

This question arises every election cycle, and it's an important one. One might be inclined to argue that the kind of access required to make these films is simply no longer available in today's hyper-savvy media culture. In the age of Donald Drumpf and the Cable News Media–Industrial Complex, one could wisely point out that subjects are too self-aware around anything with an on-off switch; political candidates and those who run their campaigns are too protected and insulated; everyone is media-trained and suspicious of someone with a camera; and no one would possibly allow a filmmaker the kind of insider access required to make a vérité film along the lines of Primary or Crisis.

But one could have easily made that same argument in 1992, when I first spoke with George Stephanopoulos and pitched him the idea of making a film about that year's presidential campaign as seen from the perspective of then-governor Bill Clinton. George was kind, respectful and blunt. "That's a great idea," he said, "and I would love to see that film. But it's never going to happen. My job is to stop you from making that film."

One could have also made that argument two years later, when David Van Taylor and I first approached Mark Goodin and Mike Murphy, who were running Oliver North's Senate campaign. We met with the same resistance. "It's never going to happen," we were told. "No one around here is looking to be a movie star. This isn't Bill Clinton's campaign."

A wise mentor once taught me that "no" was just a pathway to "yes," and that at least when someone is saying, "no," they're engaging in a conversation with you, so on some level you have them exactly where you want them. As a result, neither of these initial conversations dissuaded me, and both The War Room and A Perfect Candidate came to pass. But it's true: The Clinton and North campaigns were functioning in a far more media-savvy universe than the Kennedy and Humphrey campaigns, and they each had plenty of people whose very jobs, as George explained, were to stop us from gaining inside access.

How then can a filmmaker in the early 21st century gain the kind of access necessary to make films along the lines of Primary, Crisis, The War Room and A Perfect Candidate? The answer is surprisingly simple, and it's the same thing that Drew, Maysles, Leacock and Pennebaker had to do in the early 1960s: earn the subject's trust.

I learned this lesson early on during the filming of The War Room. Despite his initial resistance, and his continued refusal to give our team access to Clinton himself, George had agreed to allow us to film with him and his fellow strategists during that year's Democratic convention. During the course of that week, we filmed with all of the key Clinton figures, including James Carville—then still known only to political insiders as the Ragin' Cajun, but irresistible to us—as he electrified the Clinton team and energized them with a non-stop flurry of full-frontal attacks on everything associated with George Herbert Walker Bush. By the time we got the 16mm dailies processed and threaded through the eight-plate Steenbeck in directors Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's Upper West Side edit suite, it was evident that James was something special. As we sat watching the dailies, Pennebaker said, "That guy's a movie star. We should make a film about him." It was, of course, a brilliant idea. Now we just needed to convince James.

After much wrangling, George and James invited us to come meet with them in Little Rock. We made our pitch to James, and he thought it through. Finally he said, "There's only one thing that matters to me, and that's getting Bill Clinton elected president. If I'm worrying about how I look on camera, or what my momma's going to think when I cuss, then I'll be getting distracted from doing my job. So why would I let you film me?" There was a long pause, and my impulse was to fill it with persuasion—Do it for history! Do it because you're awesome! Do it because it will make you famous! Whatever you need to hear, just do it! But Pennebaker knew better. "That's up to you, James," he said. "Everyone decides to be part of these films for his own personal reasons. If you decide to do it, I will be here, because this is my life's work. And if you change your mind, you'll just let us know, and we'll go away, knowing we all gave it our best shot. But why you would do it has to be your own decision."

I was shocked. Where was the hard sell? We were going to let him decide for himself?! As we went back to our hotel room to await James' decision, I couldn't have been more nervous. I asked Pennebaker about his approach. "He has to either trust us or not," he said. "That's the only thing that matters, and it's up to him. And he needs to know that we understand that, or the trust can't begin."

Two hours later, James called the hotel room. "Come on down to the War Room and start filming tonight," he said. It was the last discussion about access that we ever had. The movie was being made.

As long as filmmakers can earn their subject's trust, access-driven movies will continue to be made. And while one would be naïve to ignore the obstacles of making a vérité film in the Media Age, one should also think of some critical advantages to making such a film in 2016. Camera equipment is so much more affordable and less obtrusive than it was in years past. Audio recording is so much more advanced. Subjects have treasure troves of home videos and still photographs just sitting on cell phones waiting to be accessed by industrious filmmakers.

The bottom line: We must make these films. They tell extraordinary stories about remarkable characters. They get to important issues about the men and women who lead our country, and the process by which we choose them. They ask crucial questions about who we are as a nation. These kinds of documentaries must continue to be made, and will serve as encouragement, even inspiration, to do so.


From A.J. Schnack’s <em>Caucus</em>. Courtesy of A.J. Schnack

Caucus is the most recent film in the series. Do you see a distinction between it, having been filmed in 2012, and some of the older work in the series?

Caucus tells the story of the 2012 Iowa Republican presidential caucus and is fascinating to watch in the context of the other cinéma vérité campaign films in this program. It's a film made with a keen observational eye, one that allows the viewers to engage fully and have their own complete experience, and in that way it is very much a descendent of the early vérité films that we've been discussing. But unlike those films, which present their narratives through the eyes of inside-the-campaign characters, Caucus provides a more observational view of the campaign. In doing so, director A.J. Schnack brings to the fore a central character who exists only in the background of the previous films: the American voter.

When seen in the context of films like Primary and The War Room, Caucus is a primer on the way that the campaign universe has changed over the last six decades. It should come as no surprise that the biggest change of all is the presence of the media. Early on, Schnack shows us a gigantic television screen, as if to announce that this film exists in the literal and metaphorical context of an overwhelming media presence. But the film simultaneously underscores a central theme of all of the movies in this program: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Retail campaigning is fundamentally the same, whether it's Michele Bachmann doing it in 2012 or Hubert Humphrey doing it in 1960. The issues that arise have been central to our national argument since John Adams ran for president: The connections to the voters (or lack thereof) are the connections to the voters (or lack thereof). Talent, money, negative campaigning, crucial strategic decisions and the zeitgeist all play their roles. And at the end of the day, the voter-candidate relationship is deeply personal; we see that playing out in Caucus, most compellingly in the empathic portrayal of Senator Rick Santorum and the various voters with whom he engages.

In the context of this program, Caucus also serves as a bridge to 2016. As clearly as the dots connect throughout these films, so that each one provides its own insights into the current state of American politics, it becomes much easier to draw the line through them all, with Caucus as the last reference point. Could it be that the giant television I mentioned earlier is Schnack's prescient foreshadowing of the Drumpf to come? As with many of the other vérité films, Caucus serves as a corollary to Thomas Jefferson's insistence that in a democracy we get the leaders we deserve—and we get the campaigns we deserve as well.

From <em>The War Room</em> (Dirs.: Chris Hegedus, DA Pennebaker; prods.: R.J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger, Frazer Pennebaker). Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

One thing that seems to exist through the years is an inability to talk about issues. Debate quickly turns to sport. Candidates seem interested in attacking each other, and it costs serious money to launch that sort of offense. Budgets come up over and over again in films about campaigns. Are there other through lines you see—universal truths, if you will—that run across these films and still resonate today?

Looking at the films together reveals all sorts of fascinating through lines in American politics over the last 60-plus years. As I've said, the most resonant common theme is that as so many things change and evolve, the very defining fundamentals of the process remain the same. So it becomes deeply interesting, for instance, to examine the role of the campaign strategist as it grows and alters (and doesn't) throughout the series, and particularly so as we see James Carville emerge as a strategist celebrity in The War Room, only to have his role, his profession and the company he created, post–War Room, thoroughly deconstructed in [Rachel Boynton's] Our Brand Is Crisis. Similarly, the role of the media in these films evolves, and you can see that role being confronted in a striking way over time with the whole series being viewable through the prism of [Haskell Wexler's] Medium Cool or A Perfect Candidate, each of which features a journalist as its main character.

The presence of the outsider candidate turns out not to be unique to recent electoral politics in America, a fact evident in many of these films. A woman running for president; an African American running for president. Is it 2008? Nope, it's 1972, and Shirley Chisholm is making exponential history all by herself as documented in {Shola Lynch's] Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed. Does anyone recognize the narrative of the upstart outsider left-wing candidate who shocks the mainstream establishment by energizing the youth vote and achieving a near game-changing triumph in the New Hampshire primary? Of course we do—that's The Bernie Sanders Story. Nope, it's [Emile de Antonio's] America Is Hard to See, and the candidate is Eugene McCarthy. Again and again we see resonances with our own moment, as when the Republican base forges a partnership with a right-wing faction only to find the arrangement backfiring and causing many to wonder if they've created a monster they'll be unable to control. Is it the Tea Party or even Donald Drumpf? Indeed not, it's the Moral Majority, whose relationship with Ronald Reagan is chronicled in David Van Taylor's With God On Our Side: Prophets and Advisors.

Those who view the films in this series will find many other common themes and through lines, but my personal favorite involves the interplay between cynicism and romanticism. Scratch a cynic, after all, and you'll find a romantic, and nowhere is this truer than on the battlefield of American politics. This dynamic plays out in Crisis, Medium Cool, With God On Our Side, [Joshua Seftel's] Taking On the Kennedys and Our Brand Is Crisis, and the relationship between the romantic and the cynic was a driving concern while David Van Taylor and I were making A Perfect Candidate, a film we promoted as "The Dark Underbelly of The War Room." A Perfect Candidate is also a film filled with people who are desperately crisscrossing Virginia looking for something in which to place their faith. And that's the motif that speaks loudest to me: the search for something to believe in.


You said earlier that "moments of transformation and revelation turn out to be defining cornerstones of each of the vérité films in this program." Can you explain?

Documentary is often seen through the prism of its subject. Even in this discussion we're talking a lot about the facts of the campaigns or the events of the times that these films portray, even more so than the filmmaking, the specifics of the narrative or the characters at the core of the films. But the films in this series are first and foremost about their characters and they are all constructed as narratives. This is particularly true of the vérité films, which have the unique ability to present their characters in a deeply revealing manner. Accordingly, the films we've collected are filled with remarkable moments in which we see our main characters transform before our very eyes. They learn things, and we see them come to the realizations that alter their lives, even if those realizations include the fact that their lives are not going to change in the manner they were hoping. And this, of course, is the essence of drama.

I've already spoken of the moments of transformation in Primary as JFK, tensely pulling on his cigar, and Hubert Humphrey, surrounded by his family, each await the returns and come to realize the full implications they represent. In Crisis, we watch as Bobby Kennedy gets the phone call informing him that his brother will indeed make a speech on national television to challenge the American people to "stop and examine their conscience," and then we witness President Kennedy as he gives that very speech. We also watch the moment in which George Wallace determines that in fact it's time to acquiesce to the now-federalized National Guard, but we also see him make the choice to declare to the passenger riding with him in his car, "The South this year will decide who the next president is . . . because you can't win without the South. And you're going to see that the South is going to be against some folks."

Many of these moments come in defeat, as when Shirley Chisholm puts the phone down in Chisholm '72 after releasing her delegates to the Democratic convention and confronts the meaning of her campaign's conclusion. Equally powerful is Kevin Vigilante's realization towards the end of Taking On the Kennedys that his opponent's star power and negative campaigning are going to prevail. And, of course, there's Mark Goodin's summary of his lessons learned and his promise-of-sorts to change in the immediate wake of Oliver North's losing bid for the Senate against Charles S. Robb in A Perfect Candidate. Reflecting back on one of the ugliest campaigns anyone can remember, he says, "We should never have let off the gas on the guy. I'll never make that mistake again. We should have just kept pounding away."

Many other moments come in victory, with my very favorite taking place towards the end of The War Room. It's late afternoon on Election Day. The Secret Service is doing a security sweep of campaign headquarters in case the candidate decides to come by to celebrate and thank the staff later that night. As a result, the War Room has cleared out, and only James Carville and George Stephanopoulos have been allowed to remain inside. It has already become clear to both men that Bill Clinton is going to win. In that very moment we see two men whose lives will never be the same again. And there, sitting on a kind of existential precipice, contemplating not the void, but all the possibilities that lie before them, they try to figure out what the future will hold.

There's a quote in A Perfect Candidate where Mark Goodin says, "Getting people elected has a lot to do with dividing . . . but that is different from what it takes to govern. Because what it takes to govern is all about finding consensus on difficult issues and bringing people together…under some sense of common purpose. And we are obsessed with getting people elected, and we are obsessed with the show. And so are you, or you wouldn't be here." To me, that sung out as a thesis of sorts for the films you've selected. Sometimes the titles seem less about the candidates at their center and more about the bureaucratic labyrinth that is our political process.

Goodin's quote functions on so many levels. On one hand it accurately describes the conundrum at the center of political campaigns in a democracy. In order to win you have to beat the other guy, which means separating yourself from your opponent and reducing his support as much as possible. But that's the opposite of what it takes to govern in a democracy; you have to find ways to achieve common ground. And that takes bringing people together, often through compromise. Of course in the era of the permanent campaign, we find ourselves in a situation where governing has taken a back seat to campaigning, and that's how you have an environment of permanent gridlock in Washington.

But then Goodin goes on to say the thing that really excites me: "We are obsessed with getting people elected, and we are obsessed with the show. And so are you, or you wouldn't be here." It's so true. We are all implicated! We, the filmmakers, love the show. And we the American people love the show, otherwise we wouldn't tune in to watch Donald Drumpf. As much as some voters think it's a gruesome car crash, others find it appeals to their Nationalist Authoritarian zeal—and between both sides we as a nation can't seem to take our eyes off of it. Goodin explained this in 1994, and it's been that way since Adams and Jefferson went at it in 1796. We love a democracy that functions. But we also like a good mudsling. It's one of the prices we must pay in a democracy. Can we survive it? What role does the media play in all of this? Does it matter who owns that media?

In the films gathered in this program, we see these conflicts and contradictions explored, examined, considered. We can't avoid them because they are defining elements of our democracy. Goodin's defining speech provides an enlightening perspective to the whole damned thing: We are all obsessed with the show. Otherwise we wouldn't be here.


Sadie Tillery is Full Frame Documentary Film Festival's Director of Programming.


Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

THEMATIC PROGRAM – “Perfect and Otherwise: Documenting American Politics”

America Is Hard to See       Emile de Antonio
An examination of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s dramatic and unsuccessful 1969 presidential campaign, constructed from interviews with the candidate and thousands of feet of newsreel.

Campaign Manager       Richard Leacock, Noel E. Parmentel Jr.
This brief portrait follows 28-year-old campaign manager John Grenier as he maps out strategies for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run and engineers a takeover of the Republican convention.  

Caucus       AJ Schnack

In 2012, eight unorthodox GOP candidates navigate the Iowa caucuses—an endless series of public events and uncomfortable questions—in hopes of securing their party’s nomination and running against Barack Obama.

Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed       Shola Lynch
A powerful look at Shirley Chisholm’s pioneering, grassroots campaign for president: The first African American woman to run for the office is considered through the recollections of many, including the candidate herself.

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment       Robert Drew/Drew Associates
This in-depth look at the University of Alabama’s integration crisis chronicles key decisions from multiple perspectives, including those of Governor George Wallace and President John F. Kennedy.

Jingle Bells       DA Pennebaker

This short film trails New York Senate hopeful Robert Kennedy as he makes a public appearance at a New York City children’s school at Christmas time. 

Medium Cool       Haskell Wexler
This daring narrative, set against the backdrop of the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, unpacks the moral obligations of bearing witness through the story of a news cameraman and his relationship with a single mother.

Our Brand Is Crisis       Rachel Boynton
American political strategists from the firm Greenberg Carville Shrum travel south to advise on marketing tactics for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s campaign for president of Bolivia.

A Perfect Candidate       R.J. Cutler, David Van Taylor
Campaign strategists, and an acutely aware journalist, take center stage in this document of the volatile 1994 Virginia senatorial race between Oliver North and Charles Robb.

Primary       Robert Drew/Drew Associates
This groundbreaking film captures the 1960 Wisconsin primary as John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey go head-to-head in a battle for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

Taking On the Kennedys       Joshua Seftel
In his first race for public office, Rhode Island doctor Kevin Vigilante finds himself running a congressional campaign against Ted Kennedy’s youngest son.

The War Room       Chris Hegedus, DA Pennebaker
This utterly captivating classic follows James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as they plot, react, and attack to ensure Arkansas governor Bill Clinton is elected president.

With God On Our Side: Prophets and Advisors       David Van Taylor
This episode of the comprehensive six-hour series With God On Our Side explores the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and its influence during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.