There he is early in DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ The War Room: The place is New Hampshire, and Bill Clinton is hanging out with his campaign strategists. President-to-Be Bubba is wearing a stupid sweatshirt and gimme cap; he’s hunkered down on a couch, fielding phone calls and swapping chitchat with his main men. But that’s all that you’re going to get of Clinton in this documentary—as soon as the scene is concluded, he vanishes from the proceedings, receding into the secondary reality of news footage and official appearances.
“We didn’t have much choice in the matter,” Pennebaker explains. “After that scene, the fact is we just couldn’t get to him. He became inaccessible. So we had to make do with his two generals. We kept thinking that someone in control would realize what an error they were making—that we’d be ushered back into the throne room and get all the access we wanted. But it didn’t turn out that way, we never got hold of any glass slippers. He became more and more of a composite figure.”
“When we heard from George”—this is Hegedus, Pennebaker’s co-filmmaker and spouse, speaking in reference to George Stephanopoulos—“that we weren’t going to get that access to the candidate but that we could film the staff, our faces kind of fell. After all, if he lost, and if we had access to him, at least we’d have a film about a losing candidate. This way, what we’d have is a film about a losing candidate’s staff. Our faces definitely fell.
“After the convention, we went off on the campaign bus trip and all we’d see of Clinton was when he came in and out of doors. But that’s all anybody saw. There’s the wall of Japanese cameras, and there are the photographers and cameramen up on stepladders—and here comes this guy in a suit, Clinton, through the door. And that’s it.
“Fortunately, we had James Carville, who’s fascinating. That’s about all you can say about James.”
Certainly there can be no two views on the question of whether Carville, Clinton’s ace strategist and the star of this film, is fascinating. Sputtering, lunging, lounging, scheming, shouting, crying, a cross between John Malkovich (intensity, hairless pate) and Tommy Smothers (bluster, beady little eyes), he would provide abundant grist for any documentarist’s mill.
The same goes (more or less) for Stephanopoulos, the perfect preppy foil for Carville’s rampage-on-the-bayou act. If Pennebaker and Hegedus had to “make do” with these two, they have little to complain about, particularly since the kind of documentary filmmaking they trade in is an anything-goes proposition.
“With a traditional film, you start with a script,” Pennebaker says. “Or at least you start with a basic concept to work from, something in which you’ve made a kind of blueprint of all the antics you’re going to go through. We have no script. The only time we write anything up beforehand is when we have to in order to get money. Even then, it’s of no creative use to us. We do try to get a smell of where to begin, but even then we have no idea where it’s going to go. At most, we know who the protagonist is going to be.”
“We don’t really direct our films,” Hegedus adds. “This is real life. A lot of it is just waiting, hanging around, trying to get the people we’re filming to love us and let us into their lives. The reasons they do let us into their lives are very complex. With James and George, I think they both had a sense of history about what they were doing.”
“We haven’t studied this process a lot, but I think for people like James and George there’s a personal gratification from seeing themselves do what they do—and they depend on us to make a record of it in an open way, without an agenda,” says Pennebaker.
Have the elusive Clintons seen the film? “We don’t know,” says Pennebaker. “We do know they never saw the rough cut, because they never asked for it.”
“Unless [Clinton] came to one of the screenings in drag,” offers Hegedus, “he hasn’t seen it.”
“Naturally, we’re more interested in what James and George think of it,” says Pennebaker. “But even more than Clinton himself, I’d love to have Hillary see it and find out what she thinks. It was Hillary who came up with the name—The War Room. Early in the campaign, James was saying they needed to have a high-response command center, with state-of-the-art technical support and all the rest of it. And Hillary said they ought to call it “the War Room.’ James instantly saw this as an extraordinary idea, in part because it conferred on the Democrats—usually known for their wimpiness—a more aggressive, tougher image.
“I always felt that Hillary knew and understood more about that place than anyone. I’d like her to see the film not because of the logistics and the strategies, but because she understood the War Room as a personal-feelings place.”