If “The War Room” were a fictional feature, it would be a sure-fire star-making vehicle for James Carville. Bill Clinton’s crafty, straight-talking campaign manager dominates this absorbing but basically unrevelatory behind-the-scenes look at the Arkansas governor’s long push for the presidency, which should see a good life wherever political documentaries are shown.
Like so many successful docus, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ first political work since “The Energy War” in 1977 was the beneficiary of exceptional good luck, in that the only campaign that would allow the filmmakers exclusive access went on to be the winning team.
With Clinton himself as a sort of secondary character who pops in periodically, pic charts the nine-month pregnancy of his battle for the White House from the perspective of his key strategists, Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos.
From frigid New Hampshire to the inner sanctum of their Little Rock, Ark., headquarters on election night, the two young men and their staffs could almost as easily pass for grad students plotting a campus event as professionals whose hunches and whims will profoundly mark the world political landscape.
Pennebaker and Hegedus came on board in time for the Democratic Convention in New York, but previous material involving the primaries, the Gennifer Flowers’ controversy and other incidents has been seamlessly added to provide a strong overriding arc for the film.
Presentation of the candidate’s major campaign points and promises, along with such factors as the “character problem,” the Tsongas and Brown challenges, the Perot threat and Clinton’s disappearing voice toward the end, will revive the issues surrounding the election race for the first time for most viewers, thus creating a historical p.o.v. soon after the fact.
With his Cajun accent, fast thinking and frank talking, Carville is a disarming presence from the get-go.
Sneering that “I think of an old calendar when I look at George Bush’s face,” Carville is usually seen on the phone or addressing his troops, and he follows an emotional speech on Election Eve with a mocking concession speech.
Camera also briefly catches him with his girlfriend, Bush campaign aide Mary Matalin, but no further insight is gained into their most unusual relationship.
Not at all the typical political backroom type in his T-shirt and jeans, Carville radiates energy and intelligence and inspires confidence by never getting rattled, temperamental or belligerent.
By contrast, Stephanopoulos comes off as a bit low-key and guarded, but still smart and clever.
The negative aspects of his personality alluded to by the press after Clinton took office — and subsequently moved him aside to make room for David Gergen — are not readily apparent here.
The frenzy and excitement of the campaign effectively propel the film, which doesn’t reveal any astonishing new information about tactics or strategies.
Still, one of the most interesting sequences details Carville’s efforts to interest the press in his discovery that some Bush-Quayle campaign materials were printed in Brazil.
This mini-scandal never became a news item simply because it didn’t make it onto TV.
Cinema verite pioneer Pennebaker, whose early work includes the landmark political docus “Crisis” and “Primary,” has, with his wife, Hegedus, and their collaborators, valuably added to the official record with this fresh angle on the U.S. political process.
Even if it doesn’t offer major surprises, it’s effectively upfront and in close.