No one on TV does political biography as skillfully as the producers of Frontline. And every four years since 1988, they have outdone themselves with The Choice, their political life histories of the presidential candidates.
The arrival of the PBS program just weeks before the November election has become an event in its own right for followers of U.S. politics. And The Choice 2008: Two Journeys - One Destination, which airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), continues the tradition of excellence.
The producers weave the political histories of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama into a nearly seamless two-hour film that moves with such focus and force that it feels more like 30 minutes. Narrative, or to use an older fashioned term, storytelling, is what drives this documentary with such velocity.
Michael Kirk, the producer of The Choice 2008, found moments of transition, if not transformation, for the two candidates.
For Obama, the moment of transformation came at the 2004 Democratic National Convention; he was essentially plucked out of obscurity to deliver a prime-time speech. In case any viewer misses the message of the perfectly edited convention footage showing a restless crowd suddenly becoming attentive and totally focused on the slender speaker, Kirk brings a talking head onscreen with just the quote to distill and underline the moment.
"All around were people with tears in their eyes," says David Axelrod, an Obama adviser. "And I realized at that moment that his life would never be the same."
The continuing dramatic tension for Obama is, not surprisingly, race. But it reveals itself in surprising ways, like the fact that the law students who were most unhappy with his performance as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review were blacks who felt he had not rewarded them with enough top positions. They felt he was too nice to the conservatives.
For McCain, the transformative moment also comes at his party's 2004 convention, when he delivered a speech supporting President Bush and his much-under-fire national defense policy. It was McCain's most enthusiastic embrace of Bush since the president's campaign team ran a smear campaign against McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary.
This was the moment, the film says, when McCain started walking a tightrope that involved his simultaneously trying to win support from the Republican base while maintaining his outsider, person-of-principle status.
"That was a very complex balancing act," says Mark McKinnon, a McCain adviser. In recent weeks, the tightrope has seemed harder to navigate for the candidate - supporting the core insight of the film when it comes to McCain.
Even though McCain's history is better known, there are still surprising moments expertly documented, like the way in which McCain stripped himself and his staff down to the bone financially - and to some extent, even spiritually - during the New Hampshire primary. He fired staff and traveled alone "living off the land," as the narration says, doing an endless string of town hall meetings in an attempt to resurrect his campaign.
While there are almost always complaints from one side or the other (or both) that one candidate or the other was favored in The Choice, that's just politics. This is biography with a capital "B" seeking to bag bigger prey: journalistic, if not historical, truth. (9 p.m., MPT, Channels 22 and 67). *** 1/2