Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Super Delegates: Bill Clinton in "The War Room" (1993)

Scene from The War Room
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

The War Room
Release Date: November 3, 1993
Directed By: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Starring: James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Heather Beckel
Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Documentary
Delegates in Question:
-Governor Bill Clinton
-President George H.W. Bush

When flipping through material that qualifies for Super Delegates, it is easy to find examples in the fictional realm. There's been countless Oscar-nominated political films based around fictionalized accounts. It is one of the reasons that co-directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's The War Room feels more vital, even if it is 23 years old and is more about the campaign staff than the actual politician. True, the documentary does feature a prominent amount of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his running mate Al Gore. However, this Oscar-nominated documentary feels infinitely timely based on its central gimmick: this was a campaign that changed how you got a president elected. That is of course if you believe James Carville and George Stephanopoulos: Clinton's head campaign managers.

To an extent, the depiction of the 1992 presidential election doesn't give much time to Clinton. Yes, it does play the greatest hits such as the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal as well as conflicting ads that President George H.W. Bush ran in South America. There's a lot that would make sense with an accompanied textbook. However, Hegedus and Pennebaker's real achievement is making the campaign staff feel more in the moment. There's very few talking head moments to fill in gaps or explain an important moment. It is mostly about working the campaign trail and reacting to the press every step of the way. The War Room in question works more as a team instead of through a hierarchy. There's consistent meetings where every opinion matters. The strategy comes from an enthusiasm to fight for what's right, and nobody believes it as much as Carville does.

While Stephanopoulos comes across as the up and coming phenomenon, it could largely be because Carville's ego defines "Win, win, win." He eagerly watches the news and finds ways to spin content to make Clinton look better, and make the various politicians (specifically Bush, Ross Perot, and Jerry Brown) look bad. There's debates where Carville almost analyzes every word in exhausting detail. There's passion for the government system without too much of the malice. The War Room shows how a campaign can be created to make a candidate look great. Considering that we see Clinton at one point in a trucker hat on the phone, the documentary does painstaking work to personalize him by separating the "trucker hat" Clinton from the professional Clinton. He is after all, a man. Even Stephanopoulos' candid insult of Gore following a speech that uses an "Up and down" metaphor comes across as endearing humanity. As much as they want to win, there isn't a sense of sabotaging one's career too overtly.

The other then-unknown reason why The War Room resonates is because this is a document regarding the final president of the 20th century. Clinton would be in office until 2001 and by then, it was time to usher in George W. Bush: who may be one of modern history's most divisive presidents. While the documentary captures every step of the campaign, it doesn't open any doors to what lies ahead. Considering that Clinton was only in office a few months by the time that The War Room was released, it would be hard to. Still, the enthusiasm of his staff as they realize that he won is itself a wonderful elation with so much hope for the future. 

There are obvious parallels between the 1993 documentary and the 2016 election. For starters, Bill Clinton's wife Hillary is now the Democratic party candidate. Bill is consistently seen in the background of her rallies while smiling and supporting her every word. While many consider her more divisive than Bill, there's still an optimistic sense that she will be not only a good president, but also the first female president in American history. It's a subject that has faded in and out of the narrative over the months, including at the Democratic National Convention where her acceptance speech featured a literal breaking of the glass ceiling. Of course by now, it's been 15 years since Bill had been in office, yet the campaign remains just as fierce despite its mellowly colored artwork and the "I'm With Her" monikers. There's a sense of hope for America's future. Most of all, Hillary has made an effort to be her own politician. 

It is impossible to not think of the value of The War Room while watching her campaign. While Carville and Stephanopoulos have moved on to other positions in politics, the need to stay spry and attack the opponent on his inaccurate responses feels familiar. It's all emotionally based, using Donald Trump's words against him to the point that pundits claimed that he became nervous during the first debate on September 26, 2016 and gave away such infringing information such as that he doesn't pay taxes. While one could argue that Trump is far worse than George H.W. Bush, the feeling of superior morality is something that initially gave Bill Clinton the edge.

It's been a rough, chaotic election worthy of its own version of The War Room. While satirical series Documentary Now! recently paid tribute to it, the real life equivalent is arguably more absurd. Both candidates get flack for consistently lying to the public. The use of social media adds another unforeseen conflict in political reputation that didn't exist a few elections ago. There's a need to be consistent and faithful. While Trump has taken most of the blame for lies, it has inspired both sides to have their live conferences fact checked with running tabs on the lower half of the screen. Even if it's not historically as groundbreaking as The War Room claims to be, this election will be studied for decades to come in regard to how candidates presented themselves and how the results played.

Despite all of this, The War Room is more than a snapshot of history. It's about the enthusiasm that one has for politics. It's about doing everything you can to present the best image of your candidate. It's about going the extra mile to prove your superiority over the competition. There's a lot to consider when dealing with politics, and the documentary  manages to do it with a fairly apolitical presentation despite supporting a Democratic candidate. Most of all, these people come across as humans with drives and desires to make a difference. It's what makes it a particularly exciting look at the election process in ways that have probably been done for centuries, but rarely become available to the general public.

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