Thursday, September 6, 2012

The War Room: Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
The 1992 presidential election was a triumph not only for Bill Clinton but also for the new breed of strategists who guided him to the White House and changed the face of politics in the process. For this thrilling, behind-closed-doors account of that campaign, renowned cinema verité filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop) and Chris Hegedus ( closely followed the brainstorming and bull sessions of Clinton’s crack team of consultants—especially the folksy James Carville and the preppy George Stephanopoulos, who became media stars in their own right as they injected a youthful spirit and spontaneity into the process of campaigning. Fleet-footed and entertaining, The War Room is a vivid document of a political moment whose truths (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) still ring in our ears, especially during another election year.

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

The best documentaries are the ones that capture a moment in time that captures the mood and culture of the events recorded.  Sometimes they can be planned, other times it can be caught purely by chance, and every once in a while both can happen and you’ve caught lightning in a bottle.  The War Room is such an example.  When the filmmakers failed to get permission to film Bill Clinton up close during his 1992 presidential campaign, they requested access to film his campaign staff instead which was approved.
So instead of Bill Clinton, the filmmakers took the risky chance in following a pair of largely unknown at the time James Carville and George Stephanopoulos along with their staff.  General wisdom said that if Clinton failed to win the presidency, there really wouldn’t be much to show for it, but fate and some deft coverage made sure that didn’t happen.  Luckily for directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Clinton did win the presidency and Carville and Stephanopoulos were naturals before the camera, a talent that served them both well after this film came out and still does today.
By the time the film started filming, a lot of the campaign’s problems like Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers and the issue of his draft letter had already passed, but even so they do pop up on occasion during the film especially footage of Flowers’ press conferences.  That footage was included to show how the Clinton political machine would address it and get ahead of the story.  With Carville handling the overall campaign strategy and Stephanopoulos handling the press and public relations, they proved to be a formidable team as well as friends, despite appearing to be polar opposites.  Carville (also known as the Ragin’ Cajun) was a fast talking unattractive political genius who guided what initially appeared to be a questionable campaign and took it too the White House with pointed attacks like “It’s the economy stupid.”  Stephanopoulos was  the good looking polished media pro who changed the way campaigns were run.
Together, they created a new media model that is now the standard that was enabled by today’s voracious 24 hour news cycle, Super PACS, attack ads, and the endless spin from campaigns and partisan news channels.  Part of the fascination with the documentary is seeing the old paradigm that had always existed (and still continued in George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign), start to crumble before this new leaner and meaner model that characterizes American politics today.  Another fun aspect of the film is seeing the personal lives of the people involved (as much as we are allowed to), especially the wildly improbable romance between Carville and Mary Matalin who just happened to be the Deputy Campaign Manager for President Bush and Carville’s competition.  How these two political savvy operatives found love in the middle of a campaign on opposite sides of the conflict is as interesting as it is incredible.
Seeing this campaign like a fly on the wall was very illuminating to see the real work being done in the political trenches and it also nicely serves as a an eye opening primer for anyone interested in politics.  The filmmakers have done an excellent job of capturing the moment when politics changed forever and thanks to this film we can witness each step of the way that it occurred for better or worse.  It would be interesting to see someone film a current campaign to see how much things have changed or have remained the same.  It would be easy to blame Carville and Stephanopoulos for a lot of what followed afterwards but as they say, “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.”

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The War Room is presented in it’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 from a new 1080p high definition digital transfer which was created on a Spirit 2K Datacine from the original 16mm camera negative.  For a low budget documentary, this transfer looks incredibly good with vibrant colors, sharp details, and excellent black levels.  This is an excellent transfer but there’s only so much that can be done with all of the archival footage that is incorporated into the film. According to the booklet that was include by Criterion asserts that the new transfer was ”approved by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker and producer Frazer Pennebaker, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K Datacine from the original 16mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Image Systems’ Phoenix was used for grain, noise reduction, jitter, and flicker.”

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The War Room only has audio track on this disc and it’s a really good DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix.  This isn’t the most robust mix however, as it is a documentary that captured sound on the fly.  The good news is that the dialogue captured in the film has excellent clarity throughout which is extremely important for a documentary.  According to Criterion’s booklet, ”the soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic audio tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”

Extras (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The Criterion Collection has provided some interesting extras and even a complete feature length sequel! All are in high definition so this is a win-win for everyone.
  • William J. Clinton Foundation Panel – The William J. Clinton Foundation hosted a panel discussion that included many of his former campaign staff including James Carville, Vernon Jordon,  and others talk about the difficult campaign.  They don’t get much time to talk however since President Clinton can’t resist the spotlight and takes over the discussion.  This isn’t the full panel but just excerpts and it runs almost thirty minutes.
  • Return of The War Room – The Return of the War Room is a sequel that delves more into the personal lives of the original participants of The War Room. We learn more about James Carville and his wife Mary Matalin, George Stephanopoulos, former deputy communications director Bob Boorstin, former press secretary Dee Dee Myers, Newsweek journalist Mark Miller, and more.  We also learn about how influential the 1992 campaign was on modern day politics from Mark McKinnon and Frank Luntz.  This was my favorite extra on this set and I liked it even better than the original War Room.  This follow up focuses mostly on Carville and Matalin’s unique relationship and we finally learn what happened between them after Clinton’s win fueled Matalin’s anger and frustration when her campaign for Bush failed.
  • Making The War Room – We hear from the people that made the film including: directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; producers R.J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger, and Frazer Pennebaker; and camera operator Nick Doob.  The group discusses how they came about filming the campaign staff instead of Clinton when their original request was denied and the process of filming the documentary and the overall campaign.
  • Stanley Greenberg – A short talk with the Clinton ’92 campaign pollster Stanley Greenberg about his profession and his past experiences doing polls for Clinton.
  • Booklet – This booklet includes an essay by Harvard professor Louis Menand called “Being There”.
  • Trailer

Summary ( 4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The War Room is a perfect snapshot in time that shows just how far we’ve come and conversely just how much some things haven’t changed.  The film was the perfect springboard for Carville and Stephanopoulos who went on to big things in the media world.  This is a uniquely American movie that shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of our political system.  The Criterion Collection has done an excellent job putting this release together and this is by far the best version of the film that’s been issued.
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