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‘The War Room’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 12, 1993

An entertaining look under the tent flaps of the Clinton campaign, "The War Room" fairly bristles with the frenetic energy, flat-out fun and Southern-fried cunning that won the White House. It's a documentary, though not a hard-hitting one, about presidential politics as reinvented by Bill Clinton's cagey generals, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville.

D.A. Pennebaker, a founding father of cinema verite, and his wife, Chris Hegedus, primarily focus their cameras on these two stars, but they also delight in documenting the pettier aspects of the campaign: Should Clinton say "No, sir" or "Uh-uh" in a TV ad? Should they retaliate against the Tsongas supporters who tore down their posters? Will a sea of printed signs look better in red or blue?

Pennebaker and Hegedus, who caught up with the campaign during the Democratic National Convention in New York, have relied partly on other filmmakers, the networks and newspaper headlines to tell their story, which begins with a gloomy winter primary in New Hampshire and ends with a euphoric victory party in Arkansas some 10 months later.

Originally they had intended to focus on Bill Clinton, who does get some screen time, but at the last minute they were rather fortuitously denied access to the candidate and came up with chronicling the strategy as it was conceived by Carville and fed to the media by Stephanopoulos. In some ways, this is a buddy comedy that could be called "The Ragin' Cajun and the Rhodes Scholar." (There are also some choice moments with the Cinderella candidate -- the choicest when he lofts a baby at a North Carolina rally and it spits up on his lapel.)

Initially, the principal characters seem aware of the filmmakers' presence, but gradually they begin to treat them like friends, and the camera like furniture. Either that or they are pretty good actors. Carville, of course, was probably born under a klieg light, and Stephanopoulos, a master of media manipulation, has the looks of a matinee idol.

The filmmakers seem to have fallen in love with their subjects: Carville, the showboating quipmeister, and Stephanopoulos, the quiet guy. Their common tie, of course, is their wholehearted passion for Clinton's agenda. You will find some of the ruthlessness, but none of the cynicism, of Tim Robbins's political parody, "Bob Roberts," here. These guys cry at the thought of bringing Americans affordable health care. In those days, they still had stars in their eyes. To that extent, "The War Room" has the feel of a fairy tale, albeit a fractious one.

While affairs of state are foremost on the agenda, the filmmakers also explore the romantic entanglement between Carville and Mary Matalin, his political nemesis on President Bush's team. The wry and pithy pair were made for each other, but they are walking proof that politics do indeed make strange bedfellows. And democracy makes for some frisky filmmaking. As Carville explains on a radio interview: "Everybody's got an opinion. This is just the most American thing you can do."

"The War Room" contains mild profanity.

Copyright The Washington Post

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