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Criterion Collection: The War Room | Blu-ray review

While most people remember the legendary directing duo that brought forth Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back, and a whole host of other classic music docs, directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker have long been involved with political vérité, even before Hendrix and Dylan helped immortalize them as filmmakers. Pennebaker actually got his start in the field shooting and editing footage for two of Robert Drew’s groundbreaking films, Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, and in a sense he returned to his roots with this political all access pass. This time he and Hegedus went behind the scenes of Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters in The War Room, silently defining observational cinema with a pair of charismatic protagonists to fill their ever watchful frame.

After first following Clinton’s surprise Democratic primary win in New Hampshire, the film buckles down inside the walls of his campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas. Inside the self proclaimed ‘war room’, the unforgettable tag-team of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos managed a raucous gang of devotees that somehow spun Clinton’s various scandals while strategizing each and every day as new stories developed, and poll numbers fluctuated. Clinton’s wins against Ross Perot and George H. W. Bush in 1992 were not only the result of a massive cultural shift, but due to the pioneering round-the-clock devotion of his campaign staff. With Carville’s now famous focus points prominently posted in the office, “1) Change vs. more of the same. 2) The economy, stupid. 3) Don’t forget health care,” the Clinton campaign maintained a relaxed workspace that was deathly serious about their task at hand, and the results are now in the record books.

Hegedus and Pennebaker brought their signature observational style to The War Room. Like most of their catalog, the film is an exercise in direct cinema. With their weapon of choice (hand held 16mm cameras with sync-sound recording equipment) in tow, the directors captured the action at hand with no imposed commentary. What happened, happened, and they were not going to force narration upon an already climactic story that they felt didn’t need explaining. And unsurprisingly, their tactics worked brilliantly, thanks to their reactive, always rolling cinematography, and an important historical event that they had free reign to shoot.

Disc Review:

As most have come to expect from Criterion, the Blu-ray debut of the film is quite a nice little package. Though the film may occasionally look a bit rough around the edges, with color bleeding television footage and news stories, the HD picture actually looks quite good. The original 16mm negative was used for the transfer, and the director-shot footage maintains decent grain and significant detail. Sticking with the original stereo track, the DTS-HD 2.0 master track reproduces everyone’s conversations quite clearly. Never is there of moment of unintelligible dialog.

William J. Clinton Foundation Panel
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s presidential candidacy, a panel was held with important members of the campaign, as well as Clinton himself. They discuss many of the trials and tribulations of the race before a live audience.

Return of The War Room
Looking back at their political masterpiece, Hegedus and Pennebaker crafted this full length sequel to The War Room. Going completely astray from their standard observational style, this film is constructed almost solely of standard interviews. Carville, Stephanopoulos, and a wide variety of politically involved characters speak about how the concept of a war room revolutionized how people campaign, and why ’92 was such a pivotal point in the political landscape.

Making The War Room
This series of comprehensive discussions between the directors, producers, and camera operators are newly shot pieces produced exclusively for the Criterion release. They discuss how the project came together, the preparation, and a variety of other topics. Though there are some thorough special features on the disc, this is quite possibly the most valuable extra.

Stanley Greenberg
As the pollster for the ’92 Clinton campaign, Greenberg speaks about some of the minute details of the job and why he holds that time period in his life so dear. This piece is by far the shortest extra included, running about 11 minutes, but it is still worth a watch.

Theatrical Trailer
As you might expect, this brief trailer highlights the major plot points, and gives a solid indication of what you might be in for with the full film. Pretty standard.

Paired with a selection of key images from the film, the booklet features a critical essay titled “Being There” by Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and a The New Yorker staff writer.

Final Thoughts:

When the mood beckons the viewing of a Hegedus and Pennebaker film, almost always the selection will be one of rock legend, but forget not their equally important work of political documentation. The War Room features the directors’ signature style while delving into a topic neither had visited in quite some time. The film does not tote the liberal spirit of its exuberant subjects, but it captures it with an observational objectivity that perfectly portrays a tightly nit campaign crew navigating the booby trapped media landscape and ever evolving poll numbers. Without an imposed narrative, the story of the campaign unfolds with suspense inducing antagonists, and a natural, highly rewarding arc. This is a must watch for political junkies and docuphiles alike, and the Blu-ray has plenty of extras for those who want to delve deeper.

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