D.A. Pennebaker hardly needs an introduction for those familiar with documentaries. One of the forefathers of direct cinema, Pennebaker started as an editor before becoming a director. His ability to take audiences right into the room and experience the feelings of the people he followed defined his work. In seeing The War Room – in which Pennebaker follows the Bill Clinton campaign in 1992 – it is hard not to think of his work as editor for Robert Drew‘s John F. Kennedy films. Whether in Primary or in the brief, but powerful Faces of November, Drew and Pennebaker combined to both bring Kennedy to life and allow the audience to feel what he felt. Now, thirty years later, Pennebaker and co-director Chris Hegedus did much of the same with The War Room.
For the most part, the documentary follows James Carville, Clinton’s lead strategist, and George Stephanopoulos, Director of Communications, as they work behind-the-scenes and in front of the cameras. Interspersed throughout the film are some snippets from George H.W. Bush’s campaign – namely Mary Matalin’s (Bush’s deputy campaign director) remarks to the press – as well as some news coverage overlaid with footage Pennebaker and Hegedus had captured. It is a greatly informative documentary, one that drops the audience right onto the battlefield to show many angles, thoughts, and strategies implemented by the campaign. For political junkies, The War Room is an obvious must-watch with the level of depth it is able to provide.
However, The War Room is even more than a political documentary. It seeks to “share a point of view”. Pennebaker and Hegedus do exactly this, looking beyond the spin and the public personas. It follows Carville and Stephanopoulos as they do their jobs and as they interact with the rest of the staff. It is illuminating in the former, but unexpectedly emotional in the latter. It is not unlike those aforementioned Kennedy films in this regard, offering not just a new perspective on events but on the individuals and feelings behind those events. The passion that the entire campaign staff demonstrated, the tears they shed, and the long hours they worked are all captured by The War Room, allowing it to cut through any political barriers. This is a study of a group of people who are passionate about something, so much so that they are willing to – as James Carville notes – give the greatest gift they have to it: their labor.
This passion and emotion is what shines through. The War Room serves as both ethnographic study and empathy machine. It is hard not to root for these people as their humanity shines through layers of defense to show who Carville and Stephanopoulos are when not in front of news cameras. The War Room shows every ounce of dirt within this political machine, while never losing sight of the humanity underneath. The desire to do good and to help the country is ever present, serving as a driving force for the passionate point-of-view The War Room demonstrates.