The War Room: Criterion Collection
March 21, 2004
By 1992, the American public had grown tired of Republican rule under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The United States had become mired in the Persian Gulf War and the economy was suffering. People were looking for change and hope for this came in the form of Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. With the help of an expert team, he launched a political campaign that thought outside the box and galvanized the country. Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker managed to document how it was done; focusing on two of Clinton’s most gifted team members: James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. The result was The War Room (1993), a fascinating look at how these men changed the process of campaigning by instilling a youthful energy that was fresh and exciting.
Hegedus and Pennebaker’s documentary takes us behind the scenes of Clinton’s presidential campaign and starts off with the infamous Gennifer Flowers press conference where she claimed to have had an affair with Clinton. It looked like his campaign would be derailed before it really got going but he managed to weather the storm thanks to the dynamic Carville, who rallied his team with an energizing half-time speech worthy of a sports coach, and the handsome yet enigmatic Stephanopoulos who was very television savvy. The two of them made quite a team, complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Clinton’s people spin it so that Bush represents old politics with negative attacks and an avoidance of the real issues while the Governor of Arkansas represents something new and hopeful – a voice of change. Carville is a tough-talking no bullshit firebrand while Stephanopoulos is quietly confident – the good cop to the former’s bad cop in their approaches. The former has the killer instinct, while the latter is more cautious, illustrated nicely in a scene where they get footage of Bush spending $10 million on printing campaign propaganda in Brazil. Carville wants to run with this immediately and Stephanopoulos wants to check out the validity of the story first. Some of the most interesting scenes in The War Room show Carville and Stephanopoulos brainstorming and strategizing ideas of how to respond to Bush’s latest attacks in the press. It is easy to see why these guys became media darlings in their own right.
Ultimately, Clinton’s team is better at damage control and spinning negative attacks then Bush’s team. They are also better at conveying their candidate’s message and capitalizing on the deep feelings of discontent that were rippling through the country at that time. The parallels between their campaign and Barack Obama’s later on are quite strong, making The War Room rather timely. There’s no question that their campaign was a real game changer and one can see Obama applying many of the same tactics as Clinton employed with equally favorable results. What Carville and Stephanopoulos did worked: Clinton was elected President of the United States. Carville went on to appear in minor roles in a few movies and also starred in a short-lived HBO T.V. series directed by Steven Soderbergh and produced by George Clooney. Stephanopoulos parlayed his success into high profile hosting gigs on several T.V. news shows.
The first disc includes the “William J. Clinton Foundation Panel,” which consists of excerpts from a panel discussion held in 2011 to mark the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s announcement to run for president. Carville and others recount their experiences and remember how exhausting it was because of the unrelenting pace. Clinton himself shows up and offers his recollections.
The second disc starts off with Return of The War Room, the 2008 follow-up documentary that sees Hegedus and Pennebaker check in with some of the major players from their previous film. They reflect on the ’92 campaign and its legacy. Carville speaks of the vibe of the campaign team headquarters while others talk about how Democrats were ready to fight back. Many of the participants put certain incidents in the film in context and offer their opinion of it.
“Making The War Room” features the filmmakers and key crew members sharing their experiences of making the famous documentary. Hegedus talks about its origins, including how he got Pennebaker involved. The veteran filmmaker had always wanted to make a documentary about a man becoming president but never had access until he met Hegedus. Originally, they wanted to cover the Republicans, Ross Perot and the Democrats but they were turned down by the first two.
Pollster Stanley Greenberg talks about the misunderstood art of polling – what it is and how it’s done. Essentially, it captures what an election is all about – the issues that drive it.
Finally, a theatrical trailer is included.