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The Celluloid of the President

A winning documentary about the Clinton campaign's inner circle

What's remarkable about The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' Oscar-nominated, behind-the-scenes documentary on the Clinton campaign's inner circle, isn't only that the documentarians were given what seems to be unlimited access to James Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, and George Stephanopoulos, his communications director. Surprising pleasure also comes from the fact that the brain trust is so compelling, even though we know what's going to happen each step of the way. And these image-makers don't appear to hold anything back: not outrage, not giddiness, neither their obsessions nor their fears. It seems that they forget or grow used to -- or don't care about -- the presence of the camera.

From staffers outmaneuvering "Barkin' for Harkin" placards on unleashed dogs at the New Hampshire primary to Stephanopoulos ending a late-night November 4 congratulatory phone call with the president-elect by saying, "Thank you very much, now we really have to do something," the documentarians capture the distance of the political race, with all its slap-dashes and endurance marathons.

So Carville, the "ragin' Cajun" (who, by the way, ran Fred Hofheinz's ill-fated 1989 Houston mayoral campaign), doesn't curb his hard-talking Southern delivery. The strategist who came up with the slogans "It's the economy, stupid" and "Don't forget health care" is indignant about reporters' relentless pursuit of Clinton's military status, complaining that "every time somebody farts the word draft, it's on the front page." Popping Tums to salve his perpetual disgust with how "yesterday" Bush is, he bursts out, "When I think of an old calendar I think of George Bush's face on it." He hates Bush so much, he won't even drink Busch beer.

The tough-talking kingmaker isn't always on the attack, though; at the end of the campaign he makes a moving speech about the glories of democracy and about how blessed he has been to be able to merge the two most fundamental efforts humans can give: love and labor. And the film also devotes more than a passing note to the labor of love of Carville's life: Mary Matalin, his now-wife and always Republican, who was a VIP in Bush's camp.

Handsome Stephanopoulos, boyish good looks intact whether he's in PR suits or cool jean jackets, shows his particular savvy in his extraordinary handling of an eleventh-hour blackmailer who threatens to leak a rumor that Clinton fathered an illegitimate black baby. Stephanopoulos travels from alarmed to calm to dismissive, then finally, in a veiled tone that belies the serious message, threatening: "I guarantee you that if you do this, you'll never work in Democratic politics again." Once all is well, he becomes teacherly, parental, almost neutrally judicial: "You'll know that you did the right thing, and you didn't dishonor yourself."

All the expected players make an appearance: angry Jerry Brown, personable Paul Tsongas, wild card Ross Perot, whose $60 million campaign Carville pinpoints as the single most naked act of political masturbation. The documentarians have the uncanny ability to capture the essence of the political moment. Bush is shown working the crowds and barking out against those "carping liberal Democrats." Al Gore tries to be hip but doesn't really succeed. Hillary Clinton is filmed at a bakery, shortly after the chocolate-chip-cookie fiasco. And in his running outfit, Clinton shushes his advisers so he can give a mundane telephone interview. The filmmakers include Gennifer Flowers' press conference announcing her alleged affair with Clinton, focusing on her reply when asked if Clinton used a condom: she flounces her hair and smiles just a little before becoming upset.

Clinton's presence in The War Room is limited, and that's probably a good thing -- even though the documentarians originally hoped to make a film about the candidate, one wonders how candid such a project would have turned out. Concentrating on the support system, we witness the minutia of cutting one second from a speech; the absurdity of debating whether the sincerity of ugly little homemade signs is more effective than the polish of big slick impersonal ones; initial excitement over a case of Bush-related misconduct and subsequent disappointment when it turns out to be a non-story.

The strategy sessions by the young, energetic, spirited movers and shakers from the Clinton war-room headquarters in Little Rock make The War Room a helluva story. Put this admiring documentary on a double billing with The Candidate, its terrific fictional satiric counterpart, and you have a winning ticket.

 
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