How important timing is. "The War Room," a documentary on the inner workings of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign that opens today at the Charles, feels almost like a post-World War II unit tribute, celebrating some regimental combat team or airborne division's charge to glory across occupied Europe. But it has the bad fortune to arrive too late, when the celebrating has stopped and the complexity of the post-war environment has become evident and people are beginning to ask: What did we win?
As an inside look at a campaign, it's quite amusing, if sketchy, and it doesn't show much that hasn't made it to TV before. The two main figures are the Cajun political consultant James Carville and Bill Clinton's media whiz, George Stephanopoulos, two very smart guys having the time of their lives honchoing over a roomful of adoring assistants while deftly unseating the mandarins of the other party. From their "war room" in Little Rock, Ark., they waged a campaign of unrelenting assault on the Republicans, and it's quite amusing to see what the main weapon of media politics has become: Just the fax.
And, though it's hardly a tough go, the film is honest enough to show when these bright fellows screw up, too, or when they play dirty. Carville, for example, invests hours and hours investigating a tip that George Bush's campaign materials were actually printed in Brazil. But the lead never panned out and one can BTC sense the disappointment on Carville's warrior's face as he has to give up the bone. Stephanopoulos is viewed playing hardball with a Perot intimate.
Two insights are communicated. The first is how much fun and how addictive the political lifestyle can be. With Carville and Stephanopoulos at the helm, these merry tricksters work like demons in heat, high on excitement, caffeine and sense of perpetual crisis. They know they're at the center of where it's all happening, and one can palpably feel their pleasure.
But the second insight is more troubling, and that is how, in full swing, the process is so totally divorced from idealism or content. In fact, like an army that's forgotten who started the war or why, it just slogs onward and onward toward some fatigue-wracked view of victory.
Thus the film feels as if it has a huge gap in it and the name of the gap is Bill Clinton. Who is this man who would be, and became, president? The film has no idea; Clinton himself is glimpsed occasionally, a completely charming fellow who can handle a press conference superbly, but who somehow is never there. As Carl Cannon wrote in The Sun's Sunday Perspective section, "It's as basic as this: Can his word be trusted?" The movie never bothers to confront such an issue or even, really, to acknowledge it; in documenting the Democrats, it clearly comes to share their uncritical view of the Hamlet-Bubba who carries their standard.
Like the campaign itself, then, it's far too tightly wound up in details to examine a larger picture, which in the end may be the problem.
"The War Room"
Directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus
Released by October Films