I can’t say I started crying during the opening credits of the upcoming HBO documentary By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, because I got to the theater five minutes late. But as I slid into my seat and arranged my concessions — at the Landmark Sunshine theater, where the movie just finished screening for a week, they have 12 kinds of flavored powder you can sprinkle on your popcorn, and it’s magical — the smiling faces of Sasha and Malia popped up on the screen and I lost all hope of keeping my composure.
I’m a total sap; your mileage may vary. (And, full disclosure, I’m friends with the movie’s assistant producer Elissa Brown.) But with the rich benefit of hindsight, viewing the early days of the Obama campaign is like walking a friend to her surprise birthday party: You’re secretly giddy about what’s in store. The film — which will air on November 3 on HBO — begins in Iowa in 2007, eight months before the caucuses and light years before today, and spends nearly half of its two-hours focusing on the state and the young supporters populating its campaign headquarters.
We meet Tommy Vietor, the baby-faced Iowa press secretary, and Ronnie Cho, the son of Korean immigrants who throughout the course of the film rivaled me in tears shed. We meet the people — David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs — whose names flooded the news and our email inboxes. And we meet, in intimate, backstage detail, Senator Barack Obama.
Early takes have already compared the film to the celebrated 1993 documentary The War Room, but as the Chicago Sun Times‘ Lynn Sweet (who appears often in By The People) points out: “The War Room did not have Clinton.” Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams began following Obama on his trip to Kenya in 2006, and their acess to him and his staff, particularly early in the film, is stunning. The cameras literally trail behind as he gladhands through Iowa crowds (and, out of their earshot, admits to feeling like he’s been through a wrestling match) and strategizes with his advisors. The filmmakers even secure an honest and moving interview with Obama’s sister in Hawaii — one of the great moments in By The People — and catch her young daughter playing with an Obama bobblehead doll and chirping about “Uncle Rocky.” It’s not until a later moment, when a weary Obama finally asks from a barbershop chair for some “quiet time” with the cameras off, that you realize just how up-close and personal you’ve been all along.
The pitfall of this proximity is an air of adulation that hangs over By The People. (One cameraman questioning Obama about a poll showing Hillary Clinton widening her lead to 34 points is quite literally apologetic: “I’m sorry, but I have to ask”.) Producer Ed Norton noted in an interview that the film was not designed to be an exposé but rather “a document of what the internal reality of the movement was.” In other words, those hoping for any gotcha moments should look elsewhere. A snippy review — in my opinion, overly so — in Variety finds this to be the movie’s biggest flaw, maintaining that the filmmakers “apparent emotional investment is reflected in the cheerleading tone that informs so much of the film” and complaining about the film’s rapid sprint in the final 30 minutes through the highlights (and, in the case of a few disturbing shots of rabid Republicans, lowlights) of the general election.
The pacing didn’t bother me; I’ve had enough Sarah Palin in my life, thank you very much, and at this point we all know the details of the Jeremiah Wright flap by heart. And I found the older footage illuminating. In a touching Christmas Eve call to the Iowa headquarters, David Axelrod pep-talks about winning the nomination and going on to defeat “Mitt or Rudy or Huckabee, or whoever those assholes nominate” with nary a mention of the ultimate Republican nominee. How quickly things change! And allocating more time to the details of September and October would mean cutting back on perfectly understated moments from February and March, like David Alexrod human-pretzeled over a hotel chair – legs akimbo, cell phone to ear, index finger barely reaching the trackpad of an adjacent laptop on the floor – or Jon Favreau watching TV with his mouth hanging skeptically open, rolling his eyes as Hillary Clinton intones “You know what they say: As goes Ohio, so goes the nation!”
I was told that the filmmakers had to tread lightly in their coverage of Clinton in the editing process, given her current position in Obama’s cabinet, but to me the Hillary-related moments are devastating enough. At the Iowa County Fair we watch Obama playing carnival games with his daughters and disarming a nearby crowd with some goofy chants; the movie then cuts to our first glimpse of Hillary — awkwardly flipping burgers, her face quivering in concentration, surrounded by fusty middle aged supporters struggling to operate their digital cameras. I winced. The juxtaposition is meant to be funny, but it felt a little mean: less a smile than a smirk.
While Obama’s opponents are hastily constructed, the film takes tremendous care to develop the personalities of those within the Obama camp. Speechwriter Favreau, so brilliant with his prose, occasionally slips and acts his age. “Blah blah blah, hope change… yeah” is his answer when asked about the text of one upcoming speech. The ongoing dynamic, particularly on Election Day, between the feisty (and at times, black leather jacket–clad) Axelrod and the laser-focused Plouffe is a joy to watch, as are the scenes featuring Gibbs and his young towheaded son. “This is like listening to the pregame show before the Super Bowl,” mutters Gibbs nervously in the hours before the Iowa caucus results as he stares at the TV. “None of it matters. Just kick-off the damn ball.” (No clearer an indictment has been made, really, about the state of the media today.)
But while the documentary avoids getting sucked into that dangerous meta-trap of focusing on the 24-hour news cycles du jour, media nerds will nevertheless delight at all the cameos in the film. Milling around in the theater lobby afterwards, I confessed to a friend that one of my favorite moments was scoping out Ryan Lizza’s office at the New Yorker while he was being interviewed on screen. Overhearing, a random girl rushed over and grabbed my arm. “Oh my god,” she said. “I was doing that too!” (The film, unsurprisingly, made no mention of Lizza’s later being denied a seat on the Obama plane late in the campaign in what some felt to be retribution for controversial New Yorker cover art.) The wonderful Candy Crowley crops up often, as does Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe. I chuckled to myself during a classic clip of Chris Matthews — “What was once inevitable for Hillary is now barely a possibility,” he says gravely, practically licking his chops — and felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw that his two guests were David Gregory and Chuck Todd. And when Tim Russert’s mug appeared, I cried. Again.
Obama himself becomes understandably more distant from the cameras as the election wears on and his profile rises, but there remains plenty of behind-the-scenes footage late in the film, most notably in a scene showing his preparation for a debate with McCain in which Obama worries about appearing “whiny.” And when he delivers an election eve speech in the rain just hours after the death of his grandmother (who is interviewed early on in the movie and talks charmingly about her grandson and his friends playing basketball and “raiding the fridge”) the documentary cameras captured what the cable news crews did not: tears in his eyes, and even on his cheeks.
My sniffles, by that point, were no longer the only ones in the theater.