ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MINIONS

The appeal of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' documentary The War Room is that it's a buddy picture. The stars--and that's how they're presented, as stars rather than as documentary subjects--are James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, widely regarded as the true architects of Bill Clinton's victory in the most recent presidential election. The two of them come across like a modern-day Hope and Crosby--one's wacky and vibrant, the other, for balance, is a pretty-faced smoothie.

The comparison isn't entirely facetious--underestimating the abilities of these two young, scruffy-looking clowns, just like the villains always underestimated Bob and Bing back in the Road pictures, may have been what cost the Republicans the election. Carville, sometimes known as the "Ragin' Cajun," supplied the wit and daring and political bloodlust, while Stephanopoulos (like Clinton himself) gave the often-beleaguered campaign a poised, unflappable front.

As cinema, or even as journalism, The War Room is no masterpiece. Pennebaker and Hegedus' most distinctive stylistic trait is simply insistence--their camera follows its subjects around doggedly. The title refers to the campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, the brain center from which the two men, assisted by a large and astonishingly young campaign staff, orchestrated Clinton's plans of attack and defense. We don't get more than a quick, overheard sense of exactly how these strategies are arrived at.

Because the personalities of the handlers are so strong, much of the behind-the-scenes footage cannot help but be fascinating in itself. But the focus is on those personalities, not on a dissection of the nuts and bolts of running a successful campaign. Without this, the film finally amounts to little more than a feature-length, "human interest" news story.

As such, however, it is entertaining. Pennebaker, a documentary veteran (best known for "rockumentaries" like the Dylan film Don't Look Back), and Hegedus, his collaborator since the late 70s (and wife since the early 80s) selected the war room as the setting for their movie out of expedience. They weren't permitted any regular access to the candidate (they had attempted to gain access to the Bush and Perot camps as well, without success).

This denial resulted in a change of the film's subject from Clinton to his staff--a lucky shift. Even those of us who still hold out some hope for President Clinton have a hard time denying that, however bright a man he may be, the glazed stare and vaguely optimistic grin of his public persona render him far less colorful and charismatic than the wild men to whom he wisely entrusted his political fortunes.

Something about modern political campaigns seems to make all candidates look like lobotomized zombies. Probably, it's just the terror of "gaffe-ing" under the pitiless eye of the broadcast media, an area explored by Feed, a comic documentary about the 92 election (Kevin Rafferty, co-director with James Ridgeway of Feed, was also a camera operator for The War Room).

Feed was a compilation of footage, most of it downhauled from satellite feeds, of grinning, stupefied candidates (Clinton and Bush among them) waiting, waiting, waiting to be interviewed on television during the New Hampshire primary. The film was hilarious but exhausting--these men seemed to be suffering a sort of existential fixity, and it was clear that the middle of a campaign was the least likely time that a candid look at a candidate would produce insight, or even be interesting.

In The War Room, Clinton is a supporting character, like the generic actor who played the president in In the Line of Fire. He's a straight man, really, to the antics of the cackling class clown Carville and his cohort, the slight, beetle-browed, breathy-voiced altar boy Stephanopoulos.

We get to see Carville's predatory glee when, during the debate, Perot attacks Bush over his prewar Iraq policy (something too risky for Clinton to do). Carville turns to the camera and says with an evil grin, "I cain't be this lucky." We get to see him drool over the prospect of circulating a story about Bush campaign material being printed in Brazil rather than the U.S., and his frustration when the news media refuse to bite.

We see Carville smirk, nettled but impressed, when he hears Bush claim that Clinton has "been seen in more places than Elvis Presley." We get a glimpse of Carville's unlikely romance, which has since become his marriage, with senior Bush campaign staffer Mary Matalin, a woman clearly too hip to have a conservative boyfriend (only liberals can get away with having conservative significant others). We see Stephanopoulos, over the telephone, calmly talk a Perot staffer out of circulating a document claiming that Clinton fathered an illegitimate child.

When, on the verge of victory, these guys get into a warm-fuzzy mode, with much hugging and shedding of tears, it gives the lie to the absurdity that the emotional sensitivity attributed to "new maleness" is somehow incompatible with cutthroat competition. Those of us who are, on balance, glad that the 92 election worked out as it did can only breathe a sigh of relief that these guys were on our side.

 
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