Blu-ray Review: THE WAR ROOM [The Criterion Collection]

Joshua Brunsting

March 20th, 2012

Flashback 20 years. Election year, young up start Bill Clinton vs. established politician George Bush.  Hope and change vs. more of the same. That’s the US during the year of 1992, and is also the narrative setting for the recently Criterion-approved D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus film, THE WAR ROOM.

Telling the story of Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, the film, released a year later, focuses more on the two men who would become icons after running the campaign, one James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Featuring Pennebaker and Hegedus’ iconic grain-filled cinematography and fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style, WAR ROOM is considered by many to be one of the greatest political films ever made, and by all accounts one of the greatest documentaries ever committed to the screen.

Stylistically, the film is bewilderingly entrancing.  Featuring very few, if any, true interview sequences, the film focuses on the moments that made this campaign what it was.  Be it a moral boosting speech from the ‘Ragin’ Cajun’ himself Carville, or Stephanopoulos taking to the phones to denounce rumors of extra-marital affairs had by the future president, you get a glimpse as to not only the change that Clinton’s campaign was looking to help spawn but also the change in political landscape that was already being brought on by the launching of the 24 hour news cycle.

The film couldn’t have chosen a better cast of characters.  The pair of Carville and Stephanopoulos are this generation’s odd couple, and their chemistry is on fire here.  Both play their respective parts, and while they are great separate, when they join forces, few political collectives have a greater political IQ or a greater strive to succeed. Clinton plays his part, but this isn’t his story truly, he simply plays as the man attempting to initiate some sort of change in this world, like a prophet guiding his disciples, striving to get his good word to the highest of positions in this country. Toss in subordinates like Paul Begala and Heather Beckel, and you have one of the greatest political collectives in the history of politics.

As a document, this is arguably one of the most important documentaries that Criterion has been able to put out.  Yes, it does tell one of the most intriguing political stories that this country has seen come across in its rather and relatively short history, but it’s even more important and impactful given today’s political landscape.  Sparking reminders of President Obama’s debut campaign four years ago, the subsequent change brought on by Clinton’s eight years is a stark reminder that today’s political landscape is nearly impossible to truly get a great deal of work done in.  Able to spawn the greatest economic growth this country has ever seen, there is such a distinct sense of hope and true love for this man and what he stands for, that when paired with today’s policy of simply saying “no” to those opposed to you, no matter who they may be or what they may be saying, it’s a bittersweet and almost melancholic feel.  A film that’s tonally changed tons over the past two decades, THE WAR ROOM is a truly must see documentary, and one of the first “must own” Blu-ray releases of 2012.

Transfer wise, this new Blu-ray is almost reference quality.  The original source was never in the most stunning of shapes, given the directing duo’s penchant for the lo-fi look of their cameras, but it looks absolutely gorgeous here.  The frames pop with percussive grain and some gorgeous cinematography.  Audibly, the film doesn’t ask much of its transfer, but it’s top notch, no matter how expansive the score may be. However, it’s the supplements that will keep people coming back to this release.

The champion of supplemental materials on this release has to be the RETURN OF THE WAR ROOM, a 2008 documentary with Carville, Stephanopoulos, Begala and the rest of the cast and crew looking back on their time within the campaign, and what the campaign itself meant to the greater realm of politics.  It’s a must watch for any fan of the first film or political junkie, and is just a great documentary in its own right.  There are interviews with the directors looking at the making of the film, and an interview with Stanley Greenberg, political strategist looking at the evolution of polling.  Finally, there is a panel discussion with Carville, adviser Vernon Jordon, journalist Ron Brownstein, and even Clinton himself, looking at what that campaign has meant for politics.  Overall, it’s just a great series of supplements, supplementing one of the best documentaries of this generation.

Democrat, Independent or Republican, THE WAR ROOM is a documentary that transcends politics or political party choice.  Simply one of the best films of the past 20 years, THE WAR ROOM tells the story of what hope and change can inspire the world to do. And it’s bloody gorgeous to boot.

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