The War Room: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

March 12, 2012 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

The Presidential Election of 1992 has (and will) gone down as one of the most important things to happen in politics in quite some time. Incumbent President Geroge H.W. Bush was still riding high on the war in Iraq. This was the “first” one, of course and the American Spirit was as high as it’d ever been. Bush was thought to be unbeatable in the 1992 election. Then along came Bill Clinton and his rather unorthodox way of thinking. As a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas for over fifteen years I was familiar with Clinton’s politics. Granted I was in college when he decided to run in ’92, but with every subsequent bomb that was dropped: draft dodging, smoking pot, extra-marital affairs and so forth, he seemed to be able to sway out of the way just in the nick of time. But as mentioned this campaign was important for a number of reasons and most importantly it was that Clinton embraced a new kind of media. Documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker were granted unprecedented access to the campaign and the two main men running it: George Stephanopoulos, the Communications Director and James Carville, the lead political strategist. This truly was history in the making.

I’m not usually a fan of documentaries but I did have a vested interest in this film. The War Room starts just after Clinton’s surprise second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary and goes all the way through to Clinton’s victory later that year. The campaign was situated in Little Rock, Arkansas in an office downtown and as we follow some of the highs and lows of the race, we get a keen insight as to some of the thought processes along the way. James “The Ragin’ Cajun” Carville’s “aw shucks” demeanor versus the more polished appearance of Stephanopoulos. They emphasized a few things, namely the changing economy in the wake of the recent recession. Bush was riding high and the Clinton campaign emphasized “change vs. more of the same” along with Clinton’s focus on Healthcare. There are limited scenes with Bill Clinton, but the majority does take place in “The War Room” as it takes a page right out of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

For those that remember this campaign they might recall Bill Clinton donning a pair of sunglasses and playing the saxophone on late night television. That or addressing a group of teens on MTV. It was this way of thinking that eventually got him elected. He reached out to the younger demographic much like he reached out to the “Soccer Moms” in his ’96 campaign. From a personal standpoint, it’s interesting to me that all of this was going on a mere 10 mles away from my home. I can remember with the utmost clarity Clinton’s victory in November, 1992. The War Room is a movie that I’d seen and heard about but for some reason had never given it a viewing. To say that this movie is personal to me is an understatement. As history has shown, Clinton had his problems in office and I personally believe that if he’d been able to keep his libido in check, he’d have gone down as one of the better Presidents. Still, he and his campaign staff managed to throw a wrench in the works and forever change the face of modern politics and nowhere is it more evident than in this documentary.

Video: How does it look?

Those that are looking for a glossy, polished image can look elsewhere. The War Room is the epitome of a what a documentary looks like. The 1.33:1 AVC HD transfer isn’t really easy on the eyes with the perpetual grain, over saturated colors and overall lossy image quality. Of course, filmmaking has changed over the last couple of decades and whereas now the image would look a lot more current. As vivid as the time is for me, I was amazed at how dated the people and their styles were. It’s always amazed me how much you can date something or someone simply by looking at a hairstyle. The supplements for the Blu-ray disc are shown in HD, but the main feature is riddled with faults, though I’m sure Criterion did everything in their power to give us the best presentation possible. If you’re looking for something pretty, this isn’t it.

Audio: How does it sound?

The sound mix isn’t anything to write home about either. Then again I wasn’t expecting it to be. The DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is, at best, marginal. Vocals are clear throughout, though some of the overlapping dialogue in the meetings is reminiscent of a Robert Altman movie. We can hear Carville’s accent with the utmost clarity and passing comments from various members of the staff. Since there’s no surrounds to speak of, everything takes place in the front channels. I think we’ve become so spoiled by surround sound and 6,7 or 8 speakers that we forget this is how everything used to sound on television. While this doesn’t hold a candle to most soundtracks out there, it wasn’t supposed to.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This film has been released by Universal on standard DVD for quite some time now, but leave it to the folks at Criterion to really up the ante in terms of supplements. Truly folks, this is where it gets good. The main draw here is “Return to the War Room” in which the old crew gets back together (in 2008) as they reflect on their times during the campaign. Carville, Stephanoupoulos and some others all reflect on their impact on politics and how it influenced future campaigns. Making “The War Room” shows the more technical side of things in which filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus discuss what led them to do the documentary and how they approached the project as a whole. There’s also a panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation that features Carville, Vernon Jordan (Clinton’s Advisor), Ron Brownstein and Clinton does make a surprise appearance as well. Strategist Stanley “Mr. Poll” Greenberg discusses the importance of polls and surveys during a campaign as his role was featured prominently in the documentary. Finally we’ve got a booklet with an essay by Louis Menand. If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to run for President, this is about as close as you’ll ever get.

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