Wednesday, 14 March 2012
The War Room
By Alan Bacchus
With film just about gone now, almost certainly in the documentary form, we probably won’t ever see a film like The War Room anymore. Documentary verite features shot on film have the true "fly on the wall" aesthetic pioneered by the co-director of this film, D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop).
Cinema verite represents a style of documentary filmmaking born in the '60s, accompanying the trends of the French New Wave. It's a term traditionally associated with the films of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. But with The War Room, we could be even more specific and call it ‘Direct Cinema’, using a type of filmmaking that is the least intrusive and most observational documentary technique, rendering the camera and filmmakers as invisible as possible to the filmmaking process.
With the prevalence of reality television and the use of talking head interviews or confession-cams, subjects are aware of the camera. But with no sit-down interviews, very little stock footage and voice-overs, and no direct-to-camera discussions, The War Room exerts a style rarely used in such purity.
It’s a supremely entertaining and enlightening film, justly nominated for a Documentary Oscar. It follows Bill Clinton through his immensely dramatic Presidential Campaign in 1991, during which he was labelled the ‘Comeback Kid’. He overcame a tough early loss in the New Hampshire Primary, survived a sex scandal with Gennifer Flowers and managed the GOP onslaught against his controversial draft record in the Vietnam War.
And yet the film is not about Bill Clinton, but rather the youthful, aggressive and passionate campaign staff behind the scenes controlling the action like control room directors of a live television show. Now recognizable political voices James Carville and George Stephanopoulos become the stars of the picture. They are a dynamic duo of sorts - one (Carville) tall, lanky and jovial, the other (Stephanopoulos) short and handsome, but both political dynamos.
Within the nerve centre of activity, Pennebaker and Hegedus capture the improvised spin control against a number of political obstacles with the utmost of naturalism and believability. The subjects seem invisible to the camera, as they go about their work passionately and without inhibition.
Late in the film after his Presidential victory, Clinton thanks his staff for their unconventionality and revolutionizing of how campaigns are run. And before that, in an impassioned speech, Carville describes how campaigns used to be run, with compartmentalized departments working in silos and in strict hierarchy. The film shows us Carville's horizontal approach by empowering each of the workers to innovate and improvise and take their own lead. Unfortunately, if there's anything to fault in the picture, we never get to see the other side, the old guard system as described by Carville.
But this is the filmmakers' medium of choice. By using the language of direct cinema, unless we see stock footage or other manipulative devices, this information can only be implied to us. But The War Room is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of the history of political campaigning. Instead, it's a slice of time in 1991 with these specific people, and the context of history can only be implied to us.
But we get it, and the film doesn't need expository explanations to make its point. The War Room is cinematic observation, the cinema verite form at its finest.
The War Room is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.