It's Been Real
The War Room
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"If they succeed this time, it's going to be every time. You'll never get a presidential candidate"¦ If we win this, you have knocked this shit back forever."-James Carville

"It's possible to go to a situation and simply film what you see there, what happens there, what goes on, and let everybody decide whether it tells them about any of these things. But you don't have to label them, you don't have to have the narration to instruct you so you can be sure and understand that it's good for you to learn."-D.A. Pennebaker

I'm a political junkie, a politics nerd, and a huge fan of all of the inside baseball at the center of political campaigning and the business of governing. This should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this site regularly; I'm a geek when it comes to just about everything I am interested in, and there's no reason politics should be any different. But I keep up with the goings on of our government on a daily basis, and am often spouting off theories as to how events will or should shake out. So there is little that excites me more than a chance to get a peek behind the curtain, a look at what the business of campaigning actually looks like. Welcome to Political Documentary Month here at It's Been Real, where over the next two installments we will examine two films that aim to do just that, looking both at how effectively they portray the process (including examining challenges of access) and at the place of political documentaries within the genre as a whole.

You can't talk about political documentaries without talking about The War Room, and you can't talk about documentaries at all without discussing D.A. Pennebaker, one of the most influential and revered documentary filmmakers of all time. Taking some queues from Dziga Vertov, Pennebaker aims for no frills documentaries that involve no voice-over narration and no interviews with the subjects involved. Instead, he prefers to simply film what he is trying to document, leaving as much as possible up to the viewers of his films. When we discussed March of the Penguins last month, I talked about the fact that all documentaries inevitably involve some level of manipulation and are therefore more akin to an attempt to dramatize real events than an actual document of said events. This is still true of Pennebaker's films (he may just shoot what happens, but he still has the ability to edit what he shoots into a finished film), yet he attempts to cut his own influence on a story to the minimum. Vertov accomplished this by just shooting random events as they occurred, but Pennebaker has never been quite as extreme; rather, he attempts to document the story he is trying to tell without interfering in the process any more than is strictly necessary, and thereby allowing viewers to think about what they are seeing and draw their own conclusions.

In the case of The War Room, (which he directed and edited along with his wife Chris Hegedus), he was handed an unprecedented amount of access into the inner workings of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for President of the United States. For a political filmmaker, and for any fan of politics, no subject could possibly be more fascinating, and fortunately the Clinton campaign is filled with enough memorable characters (the film focuses primarily on the hilarious Lead Strategist James Carville and the comparatively buckled down Communications Director George Stephanopoulos) that even those less interested in politics will find the film interesting.

Opening as the New Hampshire primary approaches and following the campaign through its surprise victory there (which lead to Clinton labeling himself "The Comeback Kid"), the Gennifer Flowers scandal that followed, the attack against George H.W. Bush's famous broken promise "Read My Lips: No New Taxes" and all the way to Election Day, the film mostly depicts a series of senior staff meetings (in what the team dubbed "The War Room") as the campaign struggles to gain its feet, decides how fiercely to attack Bush, and generally makes day to day decisions on how to move forward. Intermixed with news footage, headlines from major news sources, clips of speeches by Clinton (who appears only briefly in the film, looking tired and circumspect as the New Hampshire primary nears in the film's opening minutes), and interviews with Bush's deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin (whom Carville was dating at the time and would later marry) are scenes of the struggles and fears of the campaign's senior staff, most specifically the bombastic, foul-mouthed and deeply emotional Carville and the quiet, thoughtful Stephanopoulos.

As I said earlier, Pennebaker was fortunate to be granted access to a campaign being run by two figures as compelling and entertaining as Carville and Stephanopoulos, but true to the director's philosophy the film never commands you find them interesting, nor even suggests that they are clever, cocky or capable (all of which I would say they were). Instead, over the course of the film's 96 minute runtime viewers are allowed to get a feel for the men and the mood inside the campaign and make assessments of their own about how effective they were as political operatives.

I can't say that I necessarily find Pennebaker's cinema verite any more or less compelling than other forms of documentary, like the aforementioned docuMEntary or other more biased accounts. They are each different forms of documentary, and trying to compare them to one another would be akin to comparing apples and oranges. I can say, however, that Pennebaker has well-recorded thoughts on how a documentary should be made (he is even incredibly critical of his own film Don't Look Back, which we will examine later this year, saying that it does not meet his standards for what a documentary should be) and that he has largely lived up to his own standards throughout his long and fruitful career.

Should documentaries be as unbiased as possible? The form is after all dedicated to telling the truth, but this is largely a quixotic quest. It is impossible to make a documentary that is just a true account of what occurred, with no added frills or directorial editing choices getting in the way of cold hard facts. The closest we can get to that form, I'd say, is C-SPAN, which just points a camera and asks us to watch, without editing or contextualizing at all. And while that may be the ideal for some documentary filmmakers, I can tell you as someone who has watched hours and hours of C-SPAN that it is certainly not what I'm looking for when I go into a documentary. This genre may aspire to a "just the facts, ma'am" ideal, but in reality, documentaries are telling us a story, and that will always involve some level of creative manipulation. It's up to you what level of directorial involvement you prefer, but personally I don't mind either way necessarily. All that matters to me is that the filmmaker is up front about the level of accuracy they aspire to and how they succeed or fail to attain that. Oh, and that the film tell a good story. That is, after all, what documentaries are all about.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

2/19: Political Documentary Month: Street Fight

3/4: Waltz with Bashir

3/18: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

4/1: Exit Through the Gift Shop
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