In The Return Of The War Room, a 2008 retrospective documentary that reflects on the historic events in Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, George Stephanopoulos, then the communications director of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, talks about the very idea of a “war room” as its most important aspect. Having been whipped by the Republicans in election after election for “bringing a knife to a gunfight,” the Clintonites were determined to end a run of weak campaigns by ineffectual candidates. If they saw an opening, they would attack; if they were attacked, they’d punch back quickly and hard. To that end, The War Room opens with the first of Clinton’s famed “bimbo eruptions,” a tearful claim from Gennifer Flowers about a 12-year affair she had with the former Arkansas governor. The news came at the worst time for Clinton campaign, which was already trailing badly in the New Hampshire primary and faced a genuine existential crisis. But they fought back with denials, charged the Republicans with bankrolling the Flowers bombshell, and spun a 60 Minutes appearance into a round of good press. They turned a disaster into a net positive, positioned Clinton as “the Comeback Kid,” and rode a surprise second-place finish in New Hampshire to the Democratic nomination.
To some extent, the value of The War Room is simply an example of being in the right place at the right time; at the time, it would have made sense for Pennebaker and Hegedus to saunter over to Paul Tsongas’ office, since he was the early primary favorite. But their instincts led them first to Clinton, then to his wildly charismatic campaign manager James Carville, “the ragin’ Cajun,” who would elevate (or, depending on your perspective, denigrate) the role of political professional to media star. Yet there’s equal greatness in Pennebaker and Hegedus’ vérité rigors, which result in a documentary that shows less interest in a blow-by-blow recap of the Clinton campaign than it does in revealing bits of strategic minutiae or intimate moments with the staff. It’s a little ironic that The War Room introduced such a roster of future TV stars—Carville, Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala, for starters—because it’s so committed to catching its subjects outside the media spotlight.
Given voice mostly by Carville, whose rally-the-troops speeches in the film have become the stuff of legend, the Clintonites in The War Room fuse energy and idealism with combativeness and shrewd calculation. They talk about vision, about health care, about “it’s the economy, stupid,” but swing for the kneecaps in scenes like one in which they figure out how best to attack George H.W. Bush for outsourcing production of his campaign materials to Brazil. Elsewhere, they fuss over mundane business like the signage at the convention—Homemade or no? And will the colors clash on TV?—and how best to finesse favorability ratings. The War Room stands as a partial blueprint for how to win a campaign, and the Clintonites’ various doctrines on polling and messaging and discipline have only dated insofar as technology and media have changed. But mostly it’s a fascinating time capsule, catching a new, empowered Democratic machine in its infancy.
Key features: The aforementioned The Return Of The War Room drops the fly-on-the-wall approach for a more straightforward reflection on the film and the campaign, but it’s full of insight. Less compelling is a panel discussion at the Clinton Foundation with Carville, Vernon Jordan, and others, though Clinton himself makes a cameo appearance. There’s also a slew of interviews shot specifically for the Criterion edition, including sessions with the filmmakers and polling guru Stanley Greenberg.