By The People: The Election of Barack Obama
One part historical document, two parts victory lap celebrating Barack Obama's unlikely rise to power, HBO's By The People comes out just in time to celebrate the one year anniversary of his election. Starting in 2006, before he had even announced his candidacy, this high gloss documentary takes us on a two-year journey culminating last November in his historic election to the countries highest office. The directors, Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, were given a highly exclusive backstage pass and they make the most of it as they have sculpted a powerful film that crystallizes the emotional affect his victory had on so many.
Those eponymous people, this film's target audience, are still coming down from the high that was the most cathartic election for the left in a generation. Not only did they reclaim the White House after eight years of full throttled conservatism, but they got somebody in their who they truly believe to be on their side. Remember, for a while there a certain established, weak-kneed Democrat with a filthy voting record was considered a shoe in for the job. Of course it remains to be seen if anything Obama does with his newfound power rivals the inspiration he and his campaign was able to conjure.
When compared to 2000 and 2004, the 2008 general election between Obama and John McCain was a rather dull experience. The story never was, nor will be, the way in which Obama toppled political straw men like Sarah Palin and Joe the Plummer. Instead, and it is to Rice and Sams' credit that they recognized this truth – 2008 will be remembered for the iron man contest waged between him and the formidable, seemingly unbeatable Hillary Clinton. Looking back now it is easy to forget just how far behind in the polls he was at the start of the year. Over half the movie deals with his war with Clinton and the directors have no trouble wringing drama from the extraordinarily recent past. Once he outfoxed the Clinton political machine everything else was a foregone conclusion and that reality also is treated accordingly here. As soon as he wraps up the Democratic nomination the action jumps to him getting ready to go on stage at the Democratic National Convention.
But gaps in time as large as those seem perfectly natural as they seamlessly grind two years of footage into a movie that clocks in at under two hours. Much of the fun to be had comes from revisiting blink-and-miss-them subplots from that historic election. Who else had totally forgotten about Clinton cynically turning on the waterworks to win the New Hampshire primary? Or the feigned outrage put out there when Obama casually remarked that Clinton was "likeable enough"? It was also cool, in a completely nerdy kind of way, to see people like David Axlerod, Robert Gibbs and Jon Favreau (Obama's speech writer not the director of Iron Man) working their asses off in obscurity before they became famous. In fact, Favreau's exasperated critique of Clinton's victory speech after the Ohio primary is far and away the funniest moment of all. Reverend Wright and all the hoopla surrounding him and "God damn America" is touched upon but not dwelled upon. With every artistic decision the filmmakers had to make they prove to the world that they have a real talent for their craft.
To sell this movie HBO put out an ad that includes the scene where Lorenzo, a nine-year-old campaign volunteer, has trouble conveying his point to the person he has called and ends the conversation with a note of frustration. It is all too cute by half but an ingenious marketing tool. Obviously By The People is being aimed at those playing for Team Obama and who amongst them isn't going to be wooed by a sweet innocent kid parroting their point of view from behind a phone bank? It's one example in which the sap factor accidentally zooms off the Richter Scale. Another is the amount of manipulative music that is employed. They also use a beautiful clip of an Obama speech given right after the death of his grandma. Yes, he too cries in it, but after watching Hillary's New Hampshire theatrics no tears seem untruthful. Watching this film will also leave you vulnerable and close to tears, but in a TV universe oversaturated with tears of pain (Intervention anyone?) it feels really good to let tears of joy flow every now and again.