War Room, The (Blu-ray Review)26 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
An even more rambunctiously scrappy view after 19 years than it was when I put it on my applicable 10-best list for USA Today, the Chris Hegedus/D.A. Pennebaker look at the “new breed” strategists who got Bill Clinton elected president might have ended up being borderline unreleaseable. The filmmakers never got direct access to the candidate in the first place — and there were times early on in the ’92 campaign (Gennifer Flowers, anyone?) when it looked as if Clinton might end up in third place behind incumbent George H.W. Bush and even Ross Perot (now, there would be a documentary subject). Had that or even a second-place finish resulted, how would you have liked to have been the one peddling that assemblage of footage to a potential distributor?
But if Clinton was the self-proclaimed “comeback kid,” the movie could make a not dissimilar claim once the married directorial team began to realize the untapped treasure in their midst. And indeed, it is The War Room that let the world know just how much of a savvy jester campaign manager James Carville was — turning him into an instant media star (if not quite matinee idol) and giving no small boost as well to the subsequent public-eye careers of colleagues George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala. The next thing I knew after this Cajun camera natural kept cracking me up in every scene here, Carville had landed a small acting role in The People vs. Larry Flynt — whose director (two-time Oscar winner Milos Forman) had the same gonzo-ish casting instincts as the late Otto Preminger.
This chronicle definitely captures a fading time: The Internet hadn’t yet caught on widely nor had cell-phones — making this campaign a mix of old and new schools. The new dimension was the Clinton team’s ability to respond in an instant (or what passed for an instant then) with aggressive refutation of any attack by the opposition. And by a staff that was far less hierarchical than what conventional wisdom dictated: just a bunch of scruffy youngsters (though Carville was almost 50, not that you’d know) who got conditioned to living with no sleep.
As confirmed in a 43-minute reunion of the filmmaking principals included as a Criterion extra here, the film has always left an impression that the crew missed, didn’t have access to or began production too late to have access to a lot of key material. But this is a pitfall obviated to a substantial degree by pinpoint editing; some scenes feel truncated but not before they’ve made their point, and it’s easy for anyone even halfway familiar with what was a huge national story to fill in the gaps. Room could have taken the sprawling route, as someone points out in the same bonus footage — but the end result probably wouldn’t have been any more effective. The Flowers footage (with one uproarious laugh line) comes from outtakes gracefully lent by Kevin Rafferty from his own 1992 documentary Feed, which, by the way, is very much worth seeing if you ever get a chance.
The narrative is so tightly spun that it all but ignores one incredible story: that Carville and Bush campaign heavyweight Mary Matalin were falling for each other in Tracy-Hepburn fashion (I keep trying to imagine Carville in Tracy’s Judgment at Nuremberg role). But this missing material is covered in he-said/she-said fashion by the also included 2008 Showtime sequel Return to the War Room — which features occasional shots of offspring showing up in the frame to remind us that this was a union that “took.”
Other extras include a good contextual essay by Louis Menard; pollster Stan Greenberg (a presence in the film) explaining the evolution in his profession; and a 25-minute clip from a discussion that C-SPAN aired where Clinton himself talks about the run up to higher office. The moment I was waiting for, coming late in the original documentary, is Carville’s election-day verbal jazz riff in which he imagines what he’d be saying for philosophical public consumption had Bush won the election. Taking improvisational gallows humor to a new extreme it puts Stephanopoulos in “stop, stop” laughing agony, as if Carville had his shoulders pinned to the former’s shoulders pinned to the ground and was tickling his ribs without mercy. It was and is to me one of the half-dozen funniest movie moments from the entire 1990s, and you have to wonder (thinking also of director Alexandra Pelosi’s hair-down 2002 Journeys with George, about Bush II) if we’ll ever again see a high-stakes political documentary where even this much unfiltered eyeballing is permitted.