There are many incidents in The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ live-wire backstage view of the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, that make James Carville’s eyes twinkle. But none produces a more mischievous glint than when he’s asked about his romantic relationship with Mary Matalin, the political director of George Bush’s reelection campaign.
Carville, the chief strategist on the Clinton team, is a tall, bald, rascally Southerner with demonically arched eyebrows and a fast-break smile; he might be John Malkovich’s wild-ass brother. Throughout the movie, we see him ridicule Bush — the man, the politics, the campaign strategy. The worse Bush looks, the more fun Carville has.
So how can he date a representative of The Enemy? Though he’ll never come out and say it, the Carville twinkle lets you know that this is a ridiculous question. And that’s because Carville understands that his job — however seriously he may take it — is ultimately a uniquely American game. He’s a fierce believer in Bill Clinton’s policies, but his task is to reflect those policies in the fun-house mirror of an image-obsessed media culture. It’s no wonder he’s having a better time than anyone in the room.
It has been more than 25 years since Pennebaker made Don’t Look Back (1967), the legendary Bob Dylan rock-doc that, more than any other film, established the fly-on-the-wall, cinema verite documentary as a vital form. Now, having spawned an entire school of meticulously grainy TV commercials, the genre looks somewhat less vital, both as drama and as ”truth.” In The War Room, Pennebaker and Hegedus follow the Clinton forces from the New Hampshire primary right on through the post-Election Day high, but the film’s chief revelation is that this behind-the-scenes vantage on a contemporary presidential campaign is no longer a revelation. The news media have grown so adept at covering the inside angle that the public already knows, in essence, what people like James Carville do. (Among other things, they dream up the sound bites that politicians get credit for.) Yet Carville emerges in The War Room as a star and, indeed, a hero. And that, I think, is because the feisty intensity of his desire to get George Bush — to string him up in public by his own failed presidency — redefines spin control as a genuinely democratic act.
You can see in this movie why Carville is known as the Ragin’ Cajun. His personality is powered by a righteous anger, which he somehow converts into combative high spirits. He’s not just dedicated, he’s lit — the bulb around which the Clinton campaign moths flutter. That certainly includes communications director George Stephanopoulos, who emerges here as a soft-spoken vessel of yuppie reflection. Carville and Stephanopoulos work together as a yin-and-yang team, their contrasting traits — passion and caution, respectively — mirroring Clinton’s own internal balancing act. By the end of the movie, you realize that these two have devised nothing less than a media-age alternative to the Nixon era’s dirty tricks. The War Room is a giddy celebration of clean tricks.