By Tom Shales
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Barack Obama fired the final salvo in the great battle of images that is the 2008 presidential campaign last night with a half-hour, multimillion-dollar television infomercial that could be considered not the "feel-good" but rather the "feel-better" movie of the year.
Somehow both poetic and practical, spiritual and sensible, the paid political broadcast, which aired on seven major cable and broadcast networks (on Univision, it was identified as "Historias Americanas"), was a montage of montages, a series of seamlessly blended segments interweaving the stories of embattled Americans with visions of their deliverer, Guess Who.
As political filmmaking, "Barack Obama: American Stories" was an elegant combination of pictures, sounds, voices and music designed not so much to sell America on Barack Obama as to communicate a sensibility. The film conveyed feelings, not facts -- specifically, a simulation of how it would feel to live in an America with Barack Obama in the White House. The tone and texture recalled the "morning in America" campaign film made on behalf of Ronald Reagan, a work designed to give the audience a sense of security and satisfaction; things are going to be all right.
Obama was narrator of his film, but also its star, appearing in excerpts from speeches delivered before tremendous crowds (including the finale to the Democratic convention, a nearly biblical pageant), sitting or standing in a flag-bedecked office that looked comfortable and White Housey, and in campaign footage out amongst the folks, the people, the faithful, the huddled masses.
It also included brief testimonials from estimable figures -- running mate Joe Biden; Michelle Obama, the candidate's wife; Google chief executive Eric Schmidt; Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; and others.
Absent were the kinds of figures and graphics featured in some of Obama's bread-and-butter commercials: his economic plan vs. that of competitor John McCain, his health plan vs. that of McCain, and so on. And while there was some outright rhetoric ("the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" . . . "eight years of failed policies"), most of the talk was conversational in that laid-back, not-to-worry, calmly passionate, defiantly hopeful Obaman way.
Although McCain was not seen during the half-hour, one could easily summon the contrasting image of the Republican while watching Obama. McCain has come across on television as relatively worried, whiny, fusty and falsely folksy. He brought bad news; he has come to epitomize and personify it. Obama brings you medication along with the list of symptoms; he has developed a great bedside, as well as fireside, manner.
It was the easiest thing in the world, watching the skillfully edited hodgepodge put together by his campaign, to picture Obama as president. That's one thing the film was designed to do, especially for the doubters and those scared, "undecided" voters out there.
The vignettes -- Obama called them "stories that reflect the state of our union" -- were brief and dealt with or had ties to the current global economic strife. In North Kansas City, Mo., a family of eight in which the husband and father continues working at a tire retread plant even though he should have a leg operation, because he can't afford it. In Sardinia, Ohio, would-be retirees who have to defer the "golden years" because of a home equity loan and the lack of health insurance.
Interspersed with the vignettes were Obama's personal stories of hardships overcome while growing up and of the values inculcated by the grandmother who was largely in charge of raising him. For the umpty-umpth time, he told the story of how Granny woke his 8-year-old self up at 4:30 a.m. to go over homework and how, when he grumbled about it, she'd respond with, "Well, this is no picnic for me, either, buster."
Obama also spoke again of his mother's death from cancer, and how an insurance company refused to pay for the care she needed because her illness was coldly deemed "a preexisting condition." What Obama promises to fight are a number of preexisting conditions, too. Strangely or not, one of those -- the war in Iraq -- was barely mentioned. The war being fought by those portrayed in the film is strictly on the home front, though there was a weirdly retro reference at one point to curbing "Russian aggression."
The half-hour was underscored with music in a kind of elegiac, Aaron Copland mode -- sorrow and stature. Obama seemed as heroic a figure as Henry Fonda's Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath," but with more of a Jimmy Stewart personality. He has come, the film said, to show us all the way, and if we don't know it by now, and after all those millions spent to tell us, it's our fault.
There didn't have to be a big finish to the show, but there was: a live appearance by Obama, joined at the last moment by Biden, from a stadium in Florida. "America, the time for change has come," Obama boomed, and the crowd's roar grew louder with his voice. Now it seemed to be turning into a Frank Capra movie; after all, "Grapes of Wrath" did not have a happy ending, but, according to last night's multicast -- in spectacular ObamaRama -- this movie will.