The same qualities that helped make Barack Obama president — steadiness, sobriety, an aversion to high drama — are precisely what make “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” a less-than-electrifying account of an electrifying election. Oscar-qualifying release by HBO, prior to the pic’s Nov. 3 airdate on the pay cabler, reps a canny move; “By the People” is certainly the type of high-minded fare over which Academy voters get all squishy. But Amy Rice and Alicia Sams’ docu contains too little candor and too few unadoring moments to make it more than a perfunctory entry in the cinema of nonfiction politics.
The filmmakers have terrific access, which is a tribute to their instincts. “These people are still here,” the then-candidate says with wonder of Rice and Sams, following his surprise win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Yes, adds press communications director Robert Gibbs, “because their movie’s about to get a lot better.” Rice and Sams were aboard the Obama train early; unfortunately, their apparent emotional investment is reflected in the cheerleading tone that informs so much of the film.
When Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker made “The War Room” about the 1992 Bill Clinton-George Bush Sr. race, campaigns hadn’t quite caught onto the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle and weren’t aware of how much political capital could be made on a well-turned documentary. Obama’s chief advisers, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, are a long way from the charismatic likes of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who were no dopes but were far more reckless than their modern-day counterparts.
Axelrod and Plouffe — whose walk away from campaign headquarters on election night should have been the last shot of the film (had HBO not needed to fill out the second hour) — measure information in carefully calibrated drams; their public personalities are dryly cautious, and they know where their votes are at all times. Neither would make an injudicious comment about Hillary Clinton if he had a gun barrel shoved up his nostril. Anyway, if they did, Rice and Sams don’t have it.
What the helmers do capture is the dreamy-eyed, idealistic youth and energy behind the Obama campaign and, tangentially, the willful stupidity and prejudice of so much of America. A not-so-shining example is provided by a scene in which fourth grader Lorenzo Rivera, who has to be the youngest of all the young Obama phone canvassers, finally hangs up the phone on a woman who seems confused about elections, candidates and perhaps what planet she’s on. “I hope you have a wonderful day,” Lorenzo says with preadolescent disgust.
Young Lorenzo is an extreme example, of course. So are some of the less savory types Rice and Sams portray, as the film leaves the Obama campaign in the Democratic primary winner’s circle and finds the John McCain campaign jacking up the toxicity levels among voters. “I don’t want a black man running my country!” declares one charmer, who is at least honest about his bias, or too dim to hide it.The problem, at this stage of “By the People,” is that for an hour and a half, we’ve watched Obama travel a perfectly plotted trajectory from little-known Illinois senator to first African-American candidate for president. Then, in 30 minutes of what feels like epilogue, we get the run-up to the general election, Sarah Palin, Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s tear-streaked race speech and the joyful outburst of Obama supporters, none of whom seem particularly spontaneous — save for Ronnie Cho, the son of Korean immigrants, who starts out as a volunteer in the embryonic campaign and breaks down in tears as the returns come in on election night. Cho is one of the few genuine elements in a story that’s largely about control.
Production values are adequate. The cinematography, while subject to the rigors of a campaign, still seems less than inspired.