The War Room | A testimony of Direct Cinema's last days
The War Room is the name that Hillary Clinton gave to the former newspaper office in Little Rock, Arkansas which served as headquarters for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. It is also the title of husband-wife duo D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s 1993 documentary about the happenings there within.
A pioneer of the American Direct Cinema movement alongside Robert Drew, Albert Maysles, and Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker first innovated his mobile, fly-on-the-wall style with Primary, following John F. Kennedy’s run against Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary. In 1967 he further established himself with Don’t Look Back, a follow-around account of Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England. So by 1992, it was clear he had an innate gift for finding and working with star power, and he had his sights set on the democratic presidential front-runner Bill Clinton. Just one problem: he and Hegedus were denied access. So instead of filming him, they filmed the people around him – and stumbled straight into the made-for-TV charisma of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville.
Behind the scenes
Stephanopoulos is the handsome young Rhodes scholar, quietly commanding, guiding Clinton through what – and what not – to say. The ‘Ragin’ Cajun’ Carville is his antithesis: a gangly mass of chaotic energy with fiendish features and a Louisiana twang, sent into a fervor by the scent of a good spin. Pennebaker and Hegedus’s camera records, seemingly invisible, as they direct office operations, write and rewrite speeches, discuss color choices, and strategize how best to bring down Bush’s opposing campaign without sacrificing sportsmanship. Both men fill the viewer with the satisfaction of watching people who are very, very good at their jobs – and not only that but who are enjoying themselves as well. As D.A. Pennebaker said, “It had that feeling of a group hanging out together rather than a group of people fiercely fostering a political vantage.”
A reassuring political portrait
The War Room arrived in the last days of Direct Cinema, as audiences were already beginning to question the authenticity of anything calling itself real or transparent, and documentarians like Errol Morris and Michael Moore were taking the scene.
While Stephanopoulos and Carville are the kinds of figures that inspire a renewed belief in the nobility of politics, it’s also true that both knew they were being filmed, and have subsequently proven themselves to function well as media personalities: Stephanopoulos as host of ABC’s This Week, Carville as a host and then contributor on CNN. Nevertheless, surrounded by contemporary shows and movies like Scandal, House of Cards, or The Ides of March, The War Room is an honest and reassuring reminder that, behind the scenes, there are people who genuinely want to make the world a better (or at least more livable) place.