This post was written by STF blogger Krystal Grow.
Elections are always electric. In it’s worst form, political turmoil is abrasive and dangerously discouraging to potential voters. But the energy that radiates from the political process is helplessly contagious, and on this past Election Night in New York City, a crowd gathered at the IFC Center to see filmmaking team D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus dissect the campaign machine behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory.
THE WAR ROOM was intended as a portrait of a candidate on his way to the Oval Office, but after Pennebaker and Hegedus unsuccessfully attempted to follow the Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who was largely unaccessible on the campaign trail, they realized that the charisma the Clinton brought to podiums and press conferences was in abundance among the campaign staff.
Led by James Carville, the whip-smart, fast-talking southerner, and the brilliant and charming George Stephanopolous, the Clinton campaign team was a new breed of political organizers. A grassroots team that was mobilizing voters in the pre-crowd-sourcing days, Clinton staffers were endlessly enthusiastic, and determined to succeed.
“We walked into George’s office and told him we wanted to do a film about a man becoming president, which was foolish of us, really,” Pennebaker said in the Q&A following the film. “They were after the sound bites for the six o’clock news, but George said that if James said it was ok, we could do it.”
Luckily, Carville was already a fan, having seen Pennebaker’s rarely seen 1964 film CAMPAIGN MANAGER that followed John Grenier as he orchestrated Barry Goldwater’s nomination at the Republican National Convention. After Carville OK’d the project, Pennebaker and Hegedus dove in, employing their fine-tuned vertie techniques to capture the campaign chaos and Clinton’s eventual triumph in the 1992 Presidential election.
“We didn’t go in as press,” Pennebaker said, “we just hung out and soon we became a part of it.” Following the early stages of the primaries and capturing the campaign team’s candid responses to attack ads and tabloid controversies, the duo uncover the personal triumphs behind the political machine. In one of the most moving moments of the film (of which there are many), an emotional James Carville addresses his colleagues in The War Room, the official name for wherever the Clinton campaign staff had converged, on the evening before election day. Holding back tears while others around him wept openly, Carville paid his respects to a team about to deliver the next president to the White House.
“When you see a film like this so many years on, the context changes,” Hegedus said, “but looking back, it was really an incredible campaign. We would have voted 5 times if we could have. The energy was just infectious.”
Stranger Than Fiction’s twenty-fifth season features an eight-week tribute to the careers of D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
Krystal Grow is an arts writer and photo editor based in New York. She has written for TIME LightBox, TIME.com, LIFE.com, the New York Times Lens Blog, the Magnum Foundation and the DOC NYC blog. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kgreyscale.