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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English DTS-HD 2.0 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Return of the War Room, a 2008 documentary in which advisers James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and Paul Begala and others reflect on the effect the Clinton war room had on the way campaigns are run
  • Making "The War Room," a conversation between the filmmakers about the difficulties of shooting in the campaign's fast-paced environment
  • Panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation and featuring Carville, Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, journalist Ron Brownstein, and surprise guest Bill Clinton
  • Interview with strategist Stanley Greenberg on the increasing importance of polling

The War Room

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus
1993 | 96 Minutes | Licensor: Pennebaker-Hegedus Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #602
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: March 20, 2012
Review Date: March 19, 2012

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SYNOPSIS

The 1992 presidential election was a triumph not only for Bill Clinton but also for the new breed of strategists who guided him to the White House and changed the face of politics in the process. For this thrilling, behind-closed-doors account of that campaign, renowned cinema verité filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus closely followed the brainstorming and bull sessions of Clinton's crack team of consultants-especially the folksy James Carville and the preppy George Stephanopoulos, who became media stars in their own right as they injected a youthful spirit and spontaneity into the process of campaigning. Fleet-footed and entertaining, The War Room is a vivid document of a political moment whose truths ("It's the economy, stupid!") still ring in our ears.

Forum members rate this film 7.3/10

 

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PICTURE

Criterion presents The War Room on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer.

Shot on 16mm with a mix of what I can only guess is Camcorder footage edited in the image is a bit of a mixed bag but I think getting past some of its weaknesses it’s still consistently good. The footage shot by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus is very grainy as one might expect but I can’t say it’s rendered all that well. While not a disaster there is noticeable macro-blocking and compression noise along with some minor banding in places. But the transfer still has some pleasant surprises, the biggest for me most likely being the colours, which are rendered nicely, coming off fairly vibrant and bright, natural with solid saturation levels. Blacks vary from deep to a little washed but as a whole are nice. The image is also consistently sharp throughout with nice details, or as much as the source will allow.

The next surprise is that the source is also in excellent shape and I can’t recall many blemishes; it’s been cleaned up nicely. As mentioned before video footage is mixed in and it’s very obvious; it comes off bit noisy with far less resolution. Still, this Blu-ray’s transfer probably has the best presentation I’ve seen of video footage ever. Overall the source isn’t super clean, and the general nature of the film limits the video presentation, but I think the transfer still does a service to its presentation.

7/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The video presentation didn’t entirely surprise me but I was actually rather stunned by the 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround track. The film opens with a firework display and it really blasts the speakers, filling out the environment beautifully. It pops and bursts, separating into all directions, and sounds completely natural as if you’re actually there. Unfortunately the rest of the track isn’t as clean or as active as this opening, but I have to say for a documentary it manages to still be pretty impressive.

From here on it remains front heavy with all voices focused towards the center speaker. But some of the film’s music that appears and the sounds from the conventions both fill out the sound field nicely with the conventions being especially notable. Sound quality is generally good, limited simply by the nature of the film and how it was shot. Dialogue is clear but there is a flatness to everything, though I would think this is pretty much expected. Still the conventions and scenes with crowds offer some more depth and strength to the track.

In the end it has some minor limitations simply because of the film’s nature but it still manages to amaze in certain areas and was far more active than I would have figured.

8/10

SUPPLEMENTS

It doesn’t look like a loaded edition at first glance but Criterion has managed to pack on quite a bit of material here.

First up is footage from a panel discussion hosted by the William J. Clinton Foundation. The 26-minute clip features Carville and Vernon Jordan talking a bit about the campaign, New Hampshire in particular. Clinton himself then appears and talks a bit about the campaign, the importance of having a straight and clear “narrative” in your campaign, and the Republican strategies then and now. He also talks about how he came to use the Fleetwood Mac song Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow). He takes up a good chunk of the segment and offers some interesting insights, though very little about his own ’92 campaign. Overall it offers an even deeper look at how the “story” for a campaign comes together.

The interestingly titled sequel, Return of the War Room, from 2008 and running 81-minutes, gathers together many of the participants involved in the ’92 campaigns for Clinton, Bush, and Perot. As I found out in other features the original intention of The War Room was to follow both the Bush and Clinton campaigns (and possibly the Perot campaign if such a crazy thing ever happened) but they could only get the Clinton campaign to agree to let them film. Return of the War Room, which reflects on the actual campaign from all sides, seems to somewhat close that gap, though is a completely different beast stylistically since it’s made up entirely of talking-head interviews. Carville, Stephanopoulos, Mary Matalin, and others all recall the time period and go over many of the things that came up, like Jennifer Flowers, the “Draft Letter”, and other moments from all sides. It’s an interesting piece as it offers a more rounded view of the events since The War Room really only centers on specific happenings within the Democratic campaign, but where it gets good is where everyone then looks at what campaigns and the idea of “the War Room” have morphed into today thanks to cell phones and social media. There’s also a nice section that addresses the relationship between Carville and Matalin, who worked on opposing campaigns, and the possibilities of leaks to one another, but (oddly, especially since this would be such a concern now) no one feared this would be the case and the two never talked about it. Again it’s a straightforward talking-heads documentary and does not have the same feel of The War Room of course, but it’s a great addition to the set and worth visiting.

A section called Making The War Room presents a few interviews, starting with a 41-minute round table discussion between directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and producers R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger. I was surprised by the lack of a commentary for this edition but this piece does somewhat make up for it. Basically the four cover the production and how it all came together, and recall the struggles of getting it made and the issues that arose, as well as the relationships that built up between them and their subjects. I actually think this would have worked a little better if it could have somehow been reworked to be recorded over the film as a commentary, as I think the group would have offered quite a bit of information about it while watching it, but at 41-minutes it’s a nice length yet still manages to be thorough.

This section then features a 9-minute solo interview with producer Frazer Pennebaker, who talks about the difficulties in finding a narrative in a project like this and the “aha” moment when they realized James “Ragin’ Cajun” Carville was a “character,” along with George Stephanopoulos. He talks about the money issues (breaking down the costs for each reel of film shot) and the limitations that could occur because of the limit of funds, especially problems that would show up when music (like the Fleetwood Mac song that is used for the campaign) plays. I’m assuming he couldn’t participate in the group discussion but he offers another angle on making films of this nature.

Camera operator Nick Doob then offers a 6-minute interview about what it’s like being a camera man on a film such as this and the working relationship you have to build up with your subject. He comments on the fears he had over a phone call he captured between Stephanopoulos and a Perot campaign manager (which is shown in the film) and that Stephanopoulos would request the camera be shut off, which would basically kill any closeness the two would have had (Stephanopoulos of course didn’t.) He also talks about the victory speech segment in the film and how he ran out of film, so he wasn’t able to capture everything. I was surprised how short this one was but it’s a great addition and one of my favourites on the set since it offers a look at the more personal sides at making a film like this.

Strategist Stanley Greenberg then talks about the science of polling and their importance in campaigns. He explains how they’re done and how they’ve changed over the years, especially with the newer technologies now available. He then reflects a bit on the ’92 Clinton campaign specifically. Another interesting feature that probably wasn’t necessary, but I appreciated it since I must admit I never really understood how these things were done in the U.S.

The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer from October Films. The included booklet contains an essay by English professor Louis Menand that looks not only at this film and the ’92 campaign, but this style of documentary filmmaking as a whole (“Direct Cinema.”)

At a glance it again doesn’t look like much but it’s actually a fairly satisfying collection of supplements. I’m still surprised a commentary wasn’t recorded but everything else we get is excellent.

9/10

CLOSING

Criterion has delivered an excellent edition for the film. Limitations of the source (and some digital shortcomings) limit the video presentation but I thought the audio was actually quite stunning and the supplements were all incredibly fascinating, offering some context to the film by taking a deeper look at the campaign while also going over the nuances and difficulties in making a documentary of this nature. A great job overall and for those that enjoy the film or are fascinated by politics in general this release comes with a high recommendation.


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