Getting Down in the Trenches in ‘The War Room’

In 1960 presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met on national television for the first in a series of debates. This meeting proved the latter’s downfall for while Kennedy, tanned and relaxed, impressed audiences with his confidence and poise, Nixon, pale and haggard, lost credibility because of his tired appearance. Unique at the time, this coverage only just hinted at the advertising machines political campaigns would become 40 years later.

That the media manufacture presidential candidates is no secret today. The evidence is everywhere, from reports on the exorbitant costs to scandalous exposés of politicians’ private lives. Almost all of it is met with a flash of public indignation and then forgotten until the next crisis comes along. What began as a novelty has become a standard cog in the media machine.

The War Room offers an inside look at presidential image production. In the cinema verite spirit pioneered in Primary, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker follow Clinton’s campaign staff and its tireless efforts to polish the image of a less-than-squeaky-clean kid from Hope, Arkansas, into a shine worthy of public vote into the Oval Office. The film chronicles the monkey wrenches thrown into the works, including Gennifer Flowers’s allegations, draft-dodging accusations, and other mud-slinging on platform issues. It also chronicles events from the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic party nomination and the bus tour, the debates, and the victory on election night in November.

The cinema verite style allows the gradual discovery of just how much chaos rules in the “war room,” a staff name for the Little Rock, Arkansas, campaign headquarters. The Gazette building, a sedate concrete edifice with the name and year 1908 etched over the entrance, belies the flurry of activity inside. Instead of the slick, well-oiled, assembly-line production, we find typical office trappings but unusual office-type behavior. Desks, chairs, phones, paper piles, and houseplants fill the room, but so do cans and cases of Budweiser beer. Staff members eat popcorn out of unused coffee filters. Shelves holding several televisions help staff monitor the media’s coverage. Signs with witty and sarcastic phrases adorn the walls, including a Clinton baseball pennant and the phrase, “The economy, stupid.”

Taking credit for this rather blunt saying is James Carville, also know as the Ragin’ Cajun and manager of the Clinton production team. With his Southern affectations, quick mind, and dazzling one-liners, Carville is fun to watch. His speeches are punctuated with “y’alls” and exaggerated vowels, and even when he watches television, his animated face hides nothing of the venom, joy, dismay, or elation he feels. He shuns the jacket-and-tie uniform in favor of jeans and T-shirts with logos for LSU and sayings such as “Carville Speed Killed … Bush.”

Carville demonstrates his commitment to Clinton through the enthusiasm he brings to every meeting involving campaign decisions. While developing a quick television spot with a committee, he insists on including George Bush’s infamous sound-bite, “read my lips,” at least three times in the voiceover. The media representative on the phone protests about the length, but eventually revisions are made and the call ended. Carville launches into a brief diatribe about uncooperative media people but returns to his sound-bite hang-up, calling the phrase “the most famous broken promise in the history of American politics.”

His zippy one-liners are not limited to the war room. On a call with a KDKA talk show he responds to a question about Mary Matalin, his girlfriend (now wife) and deputy manager of the Bush campaign, and their differences of opinion on who is the better candidate. His lengthy response sends staff members working around him into fits of quiet, barely contained, laughter. The sequence ends with another brilliant bit of wit and wisdom: “Everybody’s got an opinion. This is the most American thing you can do.”

George Stephanopoulos plays the straight man to Carville’s one-man act. The conservative media manager, Stephanopoulos almost always wears button-down shirts and slacks or ties and sport coats. He is serious and formal but no less committed to Clinton’s success than Carville. In a television segment with Sam Donaldson he defends the accusation of Clinton having a character problem, referring specifically to his draft-dodging and martial infidelities. Without raising his voice or batting an eye, Stephanopoulos redirects the focus back to education and jobs. Even on election night, with the landslide victory imminent, Stephanopoulos calmly tells the future president the hopeful results over the phone. When he hangs up, a staff member mirrors many of our thoughts when she asks, “How do you feel? Are you happy, are you scared, or are you nothing or do you want to just like cry or what?” He smiles in response: “It’s just like floating.”

While most of the footage featuring Carville and Stephanopoulos is filmed in cinema verite style, the filmmakers also step outside their observational roles. They supplement this footage with television clips and shots of newspaper headlines in order to fill in some gaps in their timeline, and in doing so, also provide an additional perspective on events: the media’s. Television shots reveal much of the dings in the candidate’s reputation. One early segment juxtaposes Gennifer Flowers’s press conference (“Did Governor Clinton use a condom?” asks one reporter) and her revelation of their affair with shots of reporters asking Clinton for comments on the accusations. Nondiegetic music, including a pop song by Deee-Lite titled “Vote, Baby, Vote,” smoothes the continuity of looking at various newspaper headlines that chart Clinton’s rise and fall at both the primary polls and the public opinion polls.

One of the few shots of Clinton reveals him without the spin doctors in a tizzy trying to prepare his image for the camera. This close-up shows the humanness of the future president in that he wears a ball cap, an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt, a geeky digital watch, and running shoes. He holds a telephone receiver in his hand and drinks coffee while discussing his high school times with a reporter. As he hangs up the phone, he remarks to his campaign staff, “I bet I said something you could take out of context.”

Highlighting these imperfections in Clinton’s image is not meant as ridicule. Instead, the film tries to show Clinton as a person without focusing too much on the man himself – it leaves the image improvement job to the war room staff. Carville handles this job with Southern grace and charm and, for good measure, a rather amusing line. In response to the draft-dodging brouhaha, he reaches for the Tums and says, “What’s the matter today? Every time somebody farts the word ‘draft,’ it’s on the front page of the paper.” When Bush cancels a debate, he quips, “We ought to be on this thing like a stink on shit.”

Richard Leacock and Robert Drew started a tradition more than 40 years ago with their film Primary. With unprecedented access to the inner campaign workings, these two filmmakers followed Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey as they vied for the Democratic party nomination in Wisconsin. Instead of adding voiceover, they used the cinema verite style to provide an eye-opening experience.

Like Leacock and Drew, Hegedus and Pennebaker ran a risk in using this style for their documentary – the waiting game for something to happen. In The War Room Carville delivers. During one of the final meetings of the staff, Stephanopoulos calmly introduces Carville with a thank you. Carville gets up to give one final rally cry for the troops, but a close-up reveals his chin quivering as he speaks. A tear emerges and he wipes it away, still fighting the wash of tears coming on. He finishes his speech to applause, cheers, and chants of “one more day.” His overwhelmed reaction becomes the emotional climax for the film.

The filmmakers ran a second risk in making this film: Clinton losing the election. If he had lost, according to Hegedus, “the value of a film about a losing campaign staff wasn’t going to be too salable for us. There is a risk in any story where you’re following real life and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But the voters responded and elected Clinton by a “landslide,” in Stephanopoulos’s word. The film shows how an unconventional candidate needs an unconventional team, not the mechanical efficiency seen in the slick productions made today. And by mixing the cinema verite footage with television clips, newspaper headlines, and music, Hegedus and Pennebaker create a proper form in which to showcase Carville, Stephanopoulos, and the rest of Clinton’s staff.

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