In one of the fly-on-the-wall moments of HBO’s upcoming documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama,” speech writer Jon Favreau gets an election night call from his boss. After some consultation with Obama about the victory address, Favreau inserts a line about the hard road ahead.
Now, as President Obama’s poll numbers fall and he is mired in an uncertain push for health care reform, the scene and the documentary itself may feel like a morale booster to his staff and supporters.
The project, which had its debut screening in Los Angeles on Wednesday, is among the most anticipated of all documentaries from last year because of the access they obtained by directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams and producer Edward Norton.
You see it in the backstage moments, before Obama takes the stage to massive crowd, or in the victory trek that David Axelrod and David Plouffe take from the Chicago headquarters to the candidate’s election night hotel suite, where there is a brief glimpse inside.
This documentary isn’t “The War Room,” D.A. Pennebaker’s 1993
documentary about the Clinton campaign that focused almost exclusively on George
Stephanopoulos and James Carville. “By the People” is less expose and
more historical record, capturing the campaign from start
to finish and most often in a positive light.
“Our intent was never to try to make an expose per se,” Norton said after the screening. “I think it was always to make a document of what the internal reality of the movement was.”
Among those at the screening was Lynn Sweet, who covered the campaign
for the Chicago Sun-Times and is featured in the documentary, said that
“the most important stuff in this movie is the stuff that shows Obama
talking about Obama. That is why this is an important movie. They are
the only ones to have this kind of exclusive footage and exclusive
The project is the brainchild of Rice, who started shooting Obama on May 11, 2006, and stopped on June 28, 2009. She described a process of constantly pressing for access, with the threshold higher as Obama headed toward Election Day.
There are candid moments in “By the People”: access to Michelle Obama
at home with Malia and Sasha, interviews with Obama’s sister and
brother in law in Hawaii, an audio interview with his grandmother,
Madelyn Dunham, who describes the child Obama as a “normal boy” who
“wanted to be a big-time basketball player.” But there is nothing that
could possibly be embarrassing about it. Obama and, by and large his
staffers, are largely calm, cool and collected in their private moments.
Obama, after three hours of shaking hands in Iowa in 2007, complains half jokingly, “It’s like I’ve been through a wrestling match.” When he is preparing for the final debate with John McCain, he tries to find just the right tone when his rival brings up William Ayers. “I don’t want to sound whiny about his lies,” Obama says. In another instance during the general election, Axelrod grouses, “It is getting very ugly out there. What McCain and Palin did was really irresponsible. They are inciting people.”
The 100-minute movie focuses on Obama and a number of senior aides, including Plouffe and Axelrod, it
also captures younger staffers in field operations, including Mike
Blake, who started as deputy political director in Iowa, and Ronnie
Cho, who started as Iowa field organizer.
The closest thing to cringe worthy is in the replay of the days leading to New Hampshire, when Plouffe predicts victory. Obama tells Clinton, “You’re likable enough.” And Hillary has a tearful moment. “We believed we were guarding against hubris. I’m not sure we were,” Obama admits shortly afterward.
In the long primary slog ahead, staffers lament the “search and destroy” tactics of the Clinton campaign, although there is no mention of the hard-nosed campaigning that Obama’s team deployed as well. Tommy Vietor says he fears a “doomsday scenario”: that the primary season takes them all the way to Pennsylvania. If only it ended that soon. There is some angst over Reverend Wright, as Obama’s speech on race is cast as a kind of gutsy move to salvage the campaign, but it’s hardly the level of the drama that played on on cable news.
“These are people who have a kind of instinctive restraint,” Norton said. “It is one of the things you see about Obama, both publicly and in his private moments. You see how carefully he controls his emotional reactions. Even with the trust we established with them, Axelrod in particular is too savvy a person not to know the presence of a camera affects the way people talk and behave.”
“At every generation in politics, people are more savvy at what it means to expose yourself, and I think this is one of the most media savvy bunch of campaigners in history.”
Just about the only out-of-the-ordinary moment we see from the candidate is among the most poignant of the movie, and something that took place in full view of the public: Nov. 3, when he speaks to a North Carolina rally just hours after learning that his grandmother passed away. The camera was close enough to capture a few tears streaming down Obama’s face as he delivers his stump speech.
Norton said the movie was screened to Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and other staffers before the inauguration, as well as to the Obamas around the holidays. The movie will be shown on HBO on Nov. 4, a year since the election. (Update: I’m told that the day of the movie’s HBO debut will be Nov. 3, the night before the anniversary).
Blake, who now works as deputy associate director for intergovernmental affairs at the White House, trekked to Los Angeles for the screening. He said the movie will “remind us of why we all worked so hard.”
“Change takes time,” he said, “and I think the campaign is a testament to that.”