“The Road We’ve Traveled” is an aggressively upbeat, 17-minute hit-parade review of President Obama’s first term. The film streamed online, live, Thursday night via the president’s savvy new-media reelection machine. Although it has been artfully referred to as a documentary, it is, of course, a piece of propaganda. Perhaps less pejoratively, let’s tweak that word and call “The Road We’ve Traveled” what it mostly is: docu-ganda.
This one is for the fans, and I think you know who you are.
It was directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (as well as docs about education reform, electric guitars and the pop band U2). It is narrated by the ubiquitous Tom Hanks, who reads the script with “Apollo 13”-like sincerity. (“How do we understand this president and his time in office? . . . As president, the tough decisions that he would make would not only determine the course of the nation, but they would reveal the character of the man.”)
It is not sappy so much as it is busy, but there are moments at which it could be described as a moving tribute to American resilience during the Great Recession — that is, if one is able to be moved on the subject of this administration, which a lot of people aren’t. And as a sort of official opening salvo in the 2012 campaign, it is rich with all the things Obama’s harshest critics despise most: his charisma, his assuredness, his way with words. His fame.
In one way, the film is a masterful stroke — exactly the kind of thing you want to have around if you’re trying to persuade Americans to keep you in office, brought to you by Hollywood at a reported cost of at least $345,000, according to the Associated Press. Fact checkers and GOP campaign workers will no doubt pore over its content for the next news cycle or two, looking for places where accentuating the positive has edged closer to exaggeration. Still, some basic truths emerge and are duly touted, most notably the rescue of the auto industry, withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
It’s less of a bragging moment and more like a contractor’s bid for renewal. It’s a working résumé, a high-budget PowerPoint. As a hired gun, Guggenheim is tasked with cramming a lot into his short amount of time.
For the campaign, this has the beneficial effect of turning Obama’s first term into a litany of victories — adding “3.5 million jobs” to the private sector, appointing two Supreme Court justices, redirecting education reforms, addressing pay disparities between genders, forging ahead on renewable energy, confronting the mortgage crisis. But that haste — combined with the high-gloss commercial feel of the film — can also be overly concise, to the point that the entire struggle over health-care reform is winnowed down to a couple of minutes, spinning the resultant compromise into a win-win.
Obama supporters will find a lot to like about “The Road We’ve Traveled,” and some will no doubt see it as an overdue rallying cry, more cool than folksy. The narrowing of the Republican field has meant months of Obama-bashing, which the president has hardly engaged. At the same time, many of Obama’s 2008 supporters have drifted and expressed doubts. A hard-core Obama fan admires the president for taking the high road but often seeks refuge in the arms of Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, or in Michelle Obama’s frequent appearances on talk shows and her late-night funnin’ around in the name of nutrition and exercise.
“Key & Peele,” a sketch show on Comedy Central, has found an especially enjoyable way of interpreting that frustration, where Obama (played by Jordan Peele) addresses the American people with that steady calmness, while his personal “anger translator” Luther (Keegan-Michael Key) screams what’s really on the president’s mind (“This is RIDICULOUS! I HAVE A BIRTH CERTIFICATE!!”).
Guggenheim’s film isn’t anything like that. Its only overt moment of campaign politics is when the camera zones in on an op-ed by GOP contender Mitt Romney that argued against a Detroit bailout. Instead, the film gets those who know Obama to talk about how high the odds were that this administration would be able to accomplish anything. “The Road We’ve Traveled” joins a long line of similar docu-ganda, dating to “A Place Called Hope,” which wowed ’em the night Bill Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination in 1992.
Guggenheim might think he’s accomplished something higher. When CNN’s Piers Morgan was interviewing Guggenheim last week about “The Road We’ve Traveled,” he asked the filmmaker to name one negative thing about Obama that could have been included in the film. What followed was a laughable exchange between Morgan, who seemed to miss the point of propaganda, and Guggenheim, who finally said that the only negative thing was that the president had too many accomplishments. “Oh, come off it,” Morgan jibed. “You can’t say that with a straight face. The only negative thing about Barack Obama is there are too many positives?!”
Perhaps everyone should get his own docu-ganda. Obama will have this one, and surely more. The eventual Republican nominee will get his.
We all know how to make a piece of docu-ganda. Any decent laptop provides all the tools you’ll need. We all know when to let the music swell; we know which stock footage will best suit the feelings we’re trying to emote. Enterprising high school seniors started sending video résumés along with college applications decades ago; now families upload brilliantly edited home movies so that the world will know how happy they are, how well things are going. It’s like those beautiful movies made by energy corporations, filled with sunshine, flowers, turbines.
Everyone likes to have a little favorable smoke blown in their direction. Might as well blow some.
(17 minutes) can be viewed at BarackObama.com or on YouTube.