Ed Norton, HBO and the making of President Obama

It used to be that America had to wait for Theodore White's The Making of the President books to get the backstage story of the presidential campaigns -- his most memorable being the 1960 saga of John F. Kennedy's rise to power.

Today, it is the documentary filmmaker with access to the candidate who tells that vital story. And if anyone was wondering who that filmmaker was going to be for this epic election, the answer was given yesterday by HBO's documentary maven Sheila Nevins with the announcement that her premium cable channel had reached agreement with actor Edward Norton's production company, Class 5 Films, to air a documentary that has been in production since 2006.


According to HBO's release, directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams had "unprecedented and exclusive access to the senator and his campaign." In addition to documenting "Obama's historic rise," the film will be "examine American politics and culture through the prism of his candidacy."

According to Norton, who approached Obama and his staff several months before the senator announced his candidacy for president: "Senator Obama's history making race for the White House has given our film a perfect framework to explore the pulse of the country at this vital moment in our history. We believe this film will capture a tipping point in American history when a new generation of leadership emerged and old prejudices were finally vaulted over."

The project was started in 2006 by Rice, a cinematographer who had co-directed the documentary From Ashes. She was inspired by Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, she says. When Norton's company agreed to produce, Sams was brought in as co-director. Rice and Sams had worked together on a series of short films about public schools in New York city.

No one on TV does documentaries like HBO, thanks to Nevins, a pioneering figure in the genre. And one of the keys to her success in making independent films work for television is in the editing. The as yet untitled Obama film will be edited by Sam Pollard who did Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls, two landmark films for HBO. Pollard, who also worked on Eyes on the Prize, is the money-in-the-bank guy who all but guarantees a winner here.

"It has been a unique experience chronicling the campaign as they shake up the political establishment during this fascinating time in American politics," Sams and Rice said in a joint statement issued by HBO.

Filming will continue through the inauguration in 2009. The airdate for next year has not been set.

But this is the backstage document on this once-in-lifetime campaign for which America will be waiting. Let's hope Norton's team makes good on the access. If anybody can make it work, it's Nevins.