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‘The War Room’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 12, 1993

Before the pitched battles with Congress, Robert Dole, Ross Perot and the media, there were similar ordeals known as Gennifer Flowers, Inhaling, Going to Moscow, the Draft Letter and Slick Willie. For Bill Clinton this presidency thing was never easy.

But among his campaign aides, when the White House was still up for grabs, there was a loopy, quixotic spirit about the eternal putting out of fires. "The War Room," a behind-the-scenes documentary, captures the wearying but exhilarating atmosphere among the Friends of Bill (from the first primary in New Hampshire to the acceptance speech at Little Rock) as they try to make a president.

In this real-life drama, two emerge as "stars": James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, a Doonesbury Duo trying to dissolve the Reagan-Bush dynasty. Carville is all Cajun charisma and devilishness, as he faces hostility ("I don't know what he did in Moscow," Carville says of Clinton's student trip), revs up his campaign workers, downsizes the opposition (presidential rival Paul Tsongas, he says dismissively, "ain't goin' win anythang") and generally spins his candidate onward and upward.

If Carville's the expletive-spouting attack dog, aspiring sex symbol and Rhodes scholar Stephanopoulos is the cool, good cop at his side. Confident beyond his years, he maneuvers, spins and speechifies with the best and worst of them, a quiet eye in the political storm.

Carville replies with wit to those intrigued at his Sleeping-With-the-Enemy romance with Bush spinner Mary Matalin: "It's the most American thing you can do," he points out. Then the Capraesque Carville addresses the Flowers controversy for his fledglings, transforming an extramarital taboo into a moral clash with the forces of darkness. Every time a Democratic candidate comes up with a vision and a campaign, he says, the Republicans get to work.

"Remember Muskie?" Carville says. If Clinton beats this smearing, he says, maybe it'll put a stop to Republican dirty tricks forever.

"War Room" is shot in the nonscripted, cinema-verite style by D. A. Pennebaker (whose follow-around films on President Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Bob Dylan are documentary classics) and Chris Hegedus. Whether Carville and company are play-acting somewhat for the cameras becomes less important as the film progresses. One can only keep up an act for so long -- especially in the throes of a campaign. Carville's tearful farewell speech to his staff as they close up just before the election, Stephanopoulos's frank talk with a potential blackmailer and a Mickey Kantor comment about the people of Indiana (when it looks as though Clinton's ahead in Dan Quayle's state) attest to this.

As with almost every cinema-verite subject, people in everyday action -- politics in particular -- reveal themselves with such absorbing originality, you don't need a script. It's great to watch characters in "The War Room" operating as most of us do -- by the seat of their pants.

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