Even more than with most documentaries that set out to record events as they happen, there was a lot of luck involved in producing The War Room (1993). When they turned their attention to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, the filmmakers naturally hoped to make the candidate the star of the picture. After access was denied, they were obliged to seek permission to film the campaign staff, which had no obvious reason to grant it. In the end, they were permitted to shoot the staff during the convention—although at least once, when discussions turned delicate, they were blocked from doing even that—and, after the convention, only inside the war room in Little Rock, Arkansas, from which James Carville directed the campaign. Although Clinton makes appearances in the movie, the filmmakers were never given special access to him.
The biggest risk the moviemakers were taking—D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus directed; R. J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger, and Frazer Pennebaker produced—was that Clinton would lose the election. But even if he won, it was not self-evident how footage of campaign workers unknown to the public could, absent the candidate himself, be transformed into a feature film. There was also the problem of the campaign’s backstory. When shooting started, the primary season was over, which meant that major crises, like Gennifer Flowers and Clinton’s draft letter, had already passed. Television news footage and outtakes generously provided by the makers of an earlier campaign documentary, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway’s Feed (1992), were used to fill in the gaps.
The real stroke of fortune, though, was the discovery, within the chaos of the campaign, of a classic buddy story. In the unconventionally charming and disarming Carville and the telegenic and enigmatic adviser George Stephanopoulos, the camera found two new stars. The movie helped launch the television careers (and political reputations) of both men, and it made the Clinton war room one of the big stories of the 1992 election. Every Hollywood buddy picture requires a romance for one of the buds, and—how unforeseen was this?—it turned out that Carville had fallen in love with a woman, Mary Matalin, who was not only as camera-ready as he was but who was deputy campaign manager for Clinton’s opponent, George Bush. Even George Cukor might have found it all a little contrived.
Cukor shot from a script, however, and the challenge of as-it-happens documentary is to figure out what the script is, or what the possible scripts are, within the events as they are unfolding. Postproduction editing can sew the fragments together, but only if you have the right fragments. There has to be some real-time editorial decision-making for the documentary to have a hope of cohering. The War Room doesn’t just manage to get the personal stories and the larger picture of the campaign running simultaneously; it produces an atmosphere of suspense that is completely irrational. The movie makes you forget that you already know how everything comes out.
The theme song of the Clinton-Gore campaign was “Don’t Stop” (thinking about tomorrow), but The War Room begins and ends with the sounds of yesterday—Ella Fitzgerald singing “Vote for Mr. Rhythm,” from 1936, and Glenn Miller’s “I Swung the Election,” played by Jack Teagarden and his orchestra, from 1939. The political activity captured in the movie looks ahead—to the shrinking news cycle, the year-round attack mode, and the perpetual spin management that characterize American politics today. As a piece of cinema, though, the movie looks back, toward a much earlier moment in the history of the medium. It has a self-consciously retro flavor because it is a recollection (homage seems incongruously grand) of the origins of the tradition to which it belongs.
That old way of making documentaries was, of course, once the new way, which was to follow people around with a camera and shoot whatever happened. As with all art forms that make a virtue of spontaneity, the rules were strict: nothing could be rehearsed; no one could be asked to repeat a statement or an action; the aim was not to tell a story or teach a lesson. The aim, the originators of the style liked to say, was to give you “the feeling of being there.”
Even neutral and descriptive labels for this kind of filmmaking—observational cinema, Direct Cinema, cinema verité—have tended to be resisted or quarreled over, since they imply that the filmmaker set out to make a certain kind of movie, when all he or she was doing was . . . following someone around with a camera and shooting whatever happened. But Direct Cinema is the term usually applied to documentaries like The War Room. And Pennebaker was present at the form’s creation.
The natural assumption that art goes through doors technology has opened has things backward. Technologies develop because people have a vision of something that requires new equipment in order to come into existence, and this was the case with Direct Cinema. It did not emerge because the technologies needed for high-speed film, lightweight cameras, and synchronized sound suddenly became available. Those technologies were deliberately and laboriously invented in order to realize the vision of a few filmmakers.
The man who pulled together the people and the technologies that made Direct Cinema happen was Robert Drew, an editor at Time Inc. who imagined movies that would have the same effect as Life’s popular candid pictorials, movies that would bring the world, unstaged and as it happened, to the viewer. He spent a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard trying to construct a method for achieving this, and in 1960 he formed Drew Associates and began planning his first documentary. The associates included Albert and David Maysles, Richard Leacock, and Pennebaker, all subsequently legendary documentary filmmakers in their own right.
That year, Drew and his colleagues made the first Direct Cinema documentary. This was Primary, a movie about a political campaign. Drew got access by asking the candidates, Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, personally. His film covers the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary, which Kennedy won narrowly—not, as things turned out, a crucial contest in the race. There are some adventurous handheld sequences in Primary, notably a tracking shot, by Albert Maysles, of Kennedy entering a hall through a crowd of supporters and going up a staircase, in Milwaukee. But the really notable technological breakthrough in the movie was the sound. The filmmakers had figured out a way to shoot with a (relatively) lightweight camera and synchronized sound. This made an enormous difference in what they were able to capture.
In fact, as film scholar Keith Beattie notes in his study of Pennebaker’s work, synchronized sound is used only in parts of Primary (including the Milwaukee scene). And in some of the fly-on-the-wall footage—Kennedy and his aides in a hotel room, for example, shot by Leacock, who found a chair in a corner and hoped that everyone would ignore him—the sound is garbled and unintelligible. But you do often hear the natural sounds of events, as they happen, and mostly the camera is right in the faces of the characters. You have the feeling of being there.
Viewers do enjoy the feeling of being there. The primal appeal of the documentary, though, lies elsewhere. What people respond to, deep down, is the feeling of being in a place where they are not permitted to be, the feeling that they are seeing and hearing things that were not intended for them to see and hear. This can happen in a star’s dressing room (as in Pennebaker’s 1967 Bob Dylan movie, Dont Look Back), at a Nazi rally (as in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will), or in a television studio while President George W. Bush is preparing to go on the air (as in Michael Moore’s 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11). The documentary impulse is the impulse to capture, with a camera, things that are meant to be off camera. This is the impulse Leacock was following when he attempted to make himself invisible in Kennedy’s hotel room.
The most discordant aspect of Primary today is the voice-over. Voice-over is also used in Leacock’s short documentary Campaign Manager, about the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign, made in 1964. The voice-over is a vestige of the old newsreel, and Frederick Wiseman helped put an end to it with his bravura first documentary, Titicut Follies (1967). The War Room is an expert example of the creation of story entirely by selective shooting and editing, with no retrospective narration provided.
But do we feel that we are eavesdropping on things that were not intended for us to see and hear? Here, the filmmakers faced a nettle that they seem to have decided it was most sensible simply to grasp. Carville and Stephanopoulos are not only people whose job it is to understand how media work; they are also skilled performers of themselves. There was no way to catch them “off camera.” Just before the end of the movie, when it is apparent that Clinton has won, Stephanopoulos’s assistant, Heather Beckel, asks him, “How do you feel?” She seems genuinely curious. For who could tell? These are eggs that no filmmaker could crack, and so Carville and Stephanopolous are allowed to pretend that the camera, which they are always perfectly conscious of, is not there.
Today, everyone is a media expert. Virtually everything is recorded, or can be recorded, and there are few places that we feel we shouldn’t be. There are even fewer places that we feel we couldn’t be. The cinematography of The War Room retains a lot of the handheld tracking shots, the in-and-out-of-focus close-ups, and the quick pans that were unavoidable in the early days of Direct Cinema—filmic gestures that put the stamp of the spontaneous and unrehearsed, the stamp of documentary legitimacy, on what we see. But by 1993, documentaries were already changing. They were becoming self-referential, more explicit about the presence of the camera, more skeptical about the limits of what film could record. The narrator was starting to return, now as a character in the documentary itself. The spontaneous and the authentic became problematized. Michael Moore and Errol Morris were the new thing.
The War Room occupies an unusual place in the history of documentary. It was made at a moment when the onstage/backstage distinction on which its fly-on-the-wall method depended was starting to collapse—and, with it, the Direct Cinema form from which it descended. The people who created it set out to make a campaign documentary the old-fashioned way, and in doing so they captured both a transformation in the way campaigns are managed and a moment of change in the history of the medium itself. But you don’t think of that while you’re watching, because it’s such a hugely satisfying piece of filmmaking. You feel that you are there.
Louis Menand is a professor of English at Harvard University. He is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of several books, including The Metaphysical Club, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2002.