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THE WAR ROOM
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Directors: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Audio: DTS HD 2.0
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: March 27, 2012

We've changed the way campaigns are run!”

Film ***1/2

No matter which side of the political fence you stand on, one cannot deny the impact of the Bill Clinton 1992 presidential campaign. In terms of strategy and maneuvering, there had never been one like it before. Even if Clinton hadn't won the election, this revolutionary campaign would still be remembered.

The War Room, a widely acclaimed 1993 documentary from filmmakers (as well as wife and husband) Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, reveals quite a lot about not just what went down during the 92 campaign, but how such a process functions. Prior to this campaign, I'm sure many of us didn't really know who or what a “political strategist” was. And sure enough, this was the first political campaign where the people behind the scenes were getting just as much media coverage as the presidential candidate himself was.

Of course, by now we are all familiar with the central figure in the Clinton campaign, the ragin' Cajun himself, James Carville. If there's one thing you can say about the man, he's got enough charisma and fire to be, well, an entertaining movie character. And this was further illustrated by Billy Bob Thornton's performance in the brilliant and underrated Primary Colors.

Carville's fiery intensity is chronicled quite rivetingly, and juxtaposed with the calm and dapper demeanor of the other central figure of the campaign; communications director George Stephanopoulos. In terms of personality, you couldn't ask for two more polar opposite individuals. But nevertheless, they saw eye to eye on the campaign and worked effortlessly around the clock, with Carville's handling his end in the “war room” (a newspaper office in Little Rock), while Stephanopoulos took care of the media angle.

From the Gennifer Flowers scandal to the draft letter issue and the occasional back and forth with numerous opponents (I forgot all about the heated exchange between Clinton and Paul Tsongas during a debate), everything is reflected upon here in terms what all obstacles Carville and company had to overcome. I'm not what you would call a “political junkie”, but the way Pennebaker and Hegedus chronicle the events is riveting to the point that I think those who reject politics in general will be enthralled. In fact, pair this up with Primary Colors and you've got yourself one remarkable double feature...or better yet, go all out with a triple feature by including the equally brilliant The Ides of March!

Video ***

A nearly twenty year old documentary that was shot on 16mm, this film isn't exactly going to result in mind-blowingly awesome HD presentation. But this is a Criterion release, which therefore means that even with such appearingly lacking ingredients, we still manage to be rewarded with a most splendid looking Blu-ray release. Occasional dirt and scratches are present but never once distracting, and the overall picture is superbly sharp. Though this is my first time seeing the film, there's no doubt in my mind that this is the best quality it's ever been presented in.

Audio ***

Again, for a film of this type with this amount of age to it, one should not be expecting a showstopper as far as sound is concerned. But all of the fiery talk and heated exchanges that are included here sound even more intense thanks to a DTS HD 2.0 mix. Various music cues are especially well handled, as our numerous locations featuring large crowds.

Features ***1/2

Criterion is always one to promise tremendous supplements, and this Blu-ray release is no exception. To start with, there's actually a bonus full length documentary in the form of Return of The War Room, a 2008 follow up by Hegedus and Pennebaker, that serves as a “where are they now” reflection piece, and features interview segments with those associated with the 92 campaign. There's also a panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation, featuring Carville, Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, journalist Ron Brownstein and a surprise appearance from President Clinton himself. Next up is “Making The War Room”, in which the filmmakers reflect on how difficult it was to film a documentary in such a fast paced setting, as well as an interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg on how polling has evolved. Rounding out everything is a Theatrical Trailer and an insert booklet featuring an essay by writer Louis Menand.

Summary:

While I was a Clinton supporter (even though I was too young to vote when he was in office), I can honestly say that as pure documentary filmmaking, The War Room indeed required viewing for both political junkies and documentary enthusiasts. It focuses on an important moment in politics in terms of campaign strategy, and is highly recommended to anyone thinking of entering the political field. Once again, Criterion displays top notch efforts with this Blu-ray release!

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