Presented in a shockingly hands-off fashion, The War Room is the most insightful look at politics ever put to film. Documentarians Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker don't judge their subjects, nor do they weigh in on the politics of the moment. Both would be mistakes, robbing The War Room of its most interesting quality—its unabashed honesty. Key figures like James Carville and George Stephanopoulos (who are household names now, but weren't exactly at the time of the film's release) don't play for the cameras; They go about their business as they would if Hegedus and Pennebaker weren't around. They don't even look at the camera. It's a little startling at first because documentaries just aren't made this way anymore. But it's a great watch, and the subject matter is compelling enough that interference and manipulation aren't necessary to keep you glued to the screen.
The film follows Carville, Stephanopoulos, and the other key figures in Governor Bill Clinton's 1992 bid for the presidency. It starts in New Hampshire with the Clinton candidacy on the ropes. Gennifer Flowers had just come forward with a potentially damning story about her supposed 12-year affair with him, and his opponents (especially California Governor Jerry Brown) seem poised for big things. But a surprise second-place finish and the new monicker "Comeback Kid" help turn the campaign around and ultimately drive him toward the nomination. Carville and company are working with a totally different playbook, and they're going to need it with the attack machine of President George H. W. Bush ready to head into overdrive.
There are moments of pure idealism in The War Room. Carville's Election Day Eve speech to the crew is genuinely moving, and the anger he expresses when venting to colleagues about the media's portrayal of their candidate is equally sincere. As often as the film depicts politics as an honorable game, however, someone does something cold and calculating. Take Stephanopoulos' Election Day Eve phone call from a Ross Perot staffer. With an extremely problematic (for Clinton) allegation on the table, Stephanopoulos politely threatens his opponent before heading into the next room to celebrate with his friends and colleagues. It's an admittedly brilliant move, but it's not exactly one of the campaign's finest hours.
With political campaigning more brutal than ever before, the maneuvering in The War Room seems benign by comparison. But the lessons learned still seem relevant. The luckiest people are the ones who work the hardest. You really can't go anywhere unless you believe in the cause. And (of course), it's the economy, stupid.