Obama’s Campaign? Inspirational … The Movie, Not So Much

The 2008 presidential election held all the thrill of a classic Hollywood narrative, from the rise of its underdog hero to the unified support he received around the world. Fireworks erupted as Barack Obama launched his campaign as the Democratic candidate and confetti fell when he sealed the deal. Music and good cheer filled the […]

Last Updated: August 18, 2009 @ 5:46 PM

The 2008 presidential election held all the thrill of a classic Hollywood narrative, from the rise of its underdog hero to the unified support he received around the world.

Fireworks erupted as Barack Obama launched his campaign as the Democratic candidate and confetti fell when he sealed the deal. Music and good cheer filled the air. His grand oration provided the ideal antidote to eight years of a confused and ineloquent administration.

The hero rode off into the sunset and entered the Oval Office.

Obama’s historic win was a rousing drama witnessed by millions. As a result, it’s no difficult task to view the event in movie terms, but don’t take my word for it. "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," a documentary directed by Amy Rice and Alicia Sams (and produced by Edward Norton) follows Obama from the early moments of his campaign to its jolly finish.

HBO will air the movie on Nov. 3, but it briefly slipped into theaters in New York and Los Angeles last week so it could qualify for the Academy Awards.

And why not? There’s enough emotionality here for a couple of Oscars.

But that’s also what makes "By the People" into a somewhat average production. While Rice and Sams do a competent job of stringing together backstage moments and playful asides as Obama and his dedicated team barrel toward election day, I found nothing new or significantly compelling that had not already been established in yesterday’s headlines.

The movie, which runs close to two hours, accurately re-creates the euphoria of Obama’s triumph — suggesting that things never got too intense, or at least that the cameras weren’t there when they did. The result is an entertaining, but somewhat uneventful, form of campaign porn.

Still, the movie offers enough charm to distract from the lack of tension. Here’s Michelle Obama working her magic on undecided voters: "You know you love me," she gently chides one. There’s Obama’s hotshot young speechwriter, Jon Favreau, tirelessly fiddling around in Microsoft Word with another speech about hope and change.

Obama displays his killer basketball skills while Robert Gibbs plays around with his oblivious toddler. There’s a humanity to these moments that rarely comes through in media snippets, but it’s not enough to significantly add to the mythology surrounding the campaign.

I want to see battles, anger, frustration, and surprise. Armando Ianucci’s recent indie hit "In the Loop" hilariously peels back the mystique of D.C. politics to reveal a constant churning of wits and egomania below the surface.

I find it hard to believe that the Obama campaign lacked these qualities, even if it handled them well. D.A. Pennebaker’s "The War Room" came closer to creating this type of exposé with its portrayals of James Carville and other contributors to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign who were prone to emotional outbursts.

"By the People" successfully disperses the sentimentality among a wide variety of characters, including several folks further down the latter of the campaign. Their dedication is admirable and touching, but not what you might consider a meaty hook.

Obama’s road to the White House has become a textbook case study for how to run a campaign, but Rice and Sams don’t give us any clues about how this unique situation came together so neatly.

Yet the movie works like a rollercoaster. It’s a fun ride with a number of unexpected twists and turns, but the effect leaves little in the way of a lasting significance. Leaving a building during the primary race, Obama notices the camera and turns to Gibbs.

"These people are still here," he says, incredulously. Gibbs smiles. "Their movie’s about to get a whole lot better," he says.

It does, but only on a superficial level. Obama’s inability to reach Hillary Clinton on a cell phone immediately after he wins the primary race implies that she was a sore loser, but nobody reacts to this possibility or analyzes the situation at great length.

The sequence focusing on Obama’s debate preparations, as he goes head-to-head with a fake John McCain, misses the chance for a neat juxtaposition with the real deal. As a behind-the-scenes experience, it’s a low impact affair.

I did find it inherently fascinating to watch Obama’s two head advisers, David Plouffe and David Axelrod, quietly journey from campaign headquarters, down one elevator and up another, past ecstatic security guards and smiley young campaigners, to the hotel room where they offer their personal congratulations to the new president-elect.

These guys know how to bottle up their enthusiasm, and in this crucial moment it seems like they’re using every last ounce of mental strength to restrain themselves. They’re hardcore when it comes to professionalism.

But it would have a much more compelling effect if they simply let it all out. There are only a few glimpses of the real confidence harbored by Obama’s top dogs throughout the campaign.

At one point, riding in a car from the airport, Axelrod lets his guard down. "When you have a black man named Barack Hussein Obama," he says, "how can you lose?"

Like the presidency itself, the answer leaves much to the imagination.

 

BIO Eric Kohn

Eric Kohn is a freelance film journalist and critic whose work regularly appears in indieWIRE, New York Press and several other outlets. His thoughts on new media and film can be found at Screen Rush.