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Documentaries Give Insider's View of Politics

6 Mar, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

With Super Tuesday just behind us and presidential primary season still in full swing, documentaries offer a unique window on the mechanics of political campaigns through the years.

Many Americans are removed from the political process beyond the polling booth, and these documentaries offer a chance to get inside prior political campaigns to see what makes them tick.

Especially timely is filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys With George ($19.98), billed as a “whimsical” look at George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

Pelosi, daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), chronicled her 18 months in the press corps covering the race for NBC. Just out from HBO Video, the title catches Bush in candid, not always flattering, moments in close quarters with the traveling press.

Presidential campaign titles let viewers work backward through several administrations to cobble together a picture of the road to the White House.

Among the classic campaign docs is The War Room. Although Lions Gate Home Entertainment released the title in 1999, this feature documenting Bill Clinton's campaign is worthwhile, if only to watch the inimitable James Carville at work. Carville's political brilliance borders on the amoral, which is often as unsettling as it is informative.

Most campaign documentaries use broadcast news clips and interviews with candidates and campaign insiders to take viewers into the guts of a campaign machine as each race progresses.

Campaign docs vary by filmmaker access and, as with other documentaries, may push a political agenda. But most are insightful even when they have an obvious slant.

Docurama's Primary, released last November to coincide with the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, might be considered the one that started it all.

Kennedy gave filmmaker Robert Drew -- who was working for Time Life -- access that was unprecedented at the time to cover a week in the 1960 campaign. Drew and cameraman Ricky Leach followed Kennedy for a week as he campaigned in Wisconsin for the contentious race against Hubert Humphrey.

Political documentaries can cover lesser campaigns than presidential races, and documentaries about causes can often help set the stage.

A great example is Docurama's See How They Run, which chronicles gay standup comic Tom Ammiano's write-in campaign challenging political pro Willie Brown in his 1999 run for the mayorship of San Francisco.

Brown, long known as a savvy and flamboyant dealmaker, was facing a fragmented field of 12 challengers, none of whom really had a chance. But he got a run for his money from a virtual unknown who came out of nowhere to challenge him.

The result is an often amusing look at the self-described queen challenging the politician known throughout California as the king.

Although these titles get more attention every fourth year during the presidential election cycle, they are instructive at any time. Political junkies can't get enough of them, and they're always recommendable to students of the political process.

More than a handful of political-issue documentaries are available to lend context to the campaign documentaries.

First Run Features' The War at Home documents the anti-Vietnam War movement through archival news footage and interviews with students, activists and Vietnam veterans. The Oscar-nominated film, made in 1979, is perhaps even more interesting because it lacked 20 years of hindsight that viewers have now.

Docurama's Radio Bikini uses seldom-seen government footage to tell how the seeds of the Cold War were sown at Bikini Atoll.

Showtime Entertainment adds to the category March 16 with The Boys of Second Street Park ($26.99 DVD), a film examining what became of the hopes and dreams of a group of men who grew up in New York in the '60s.

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