In 1993, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus came out with “The War Room,” a cinema vérité behind-the-scenes examination of how James Carville and George Stephanopolous helped Bill Clinton get elected president. Last year Rachel Boynton’s “Our Brand is Crisis” came out as a virtual sequel. Using the same basic technique as Pennebaker-Hegedus, Boynton followed around Carville consultants as they helped to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (“Goni”) president of Bolivia in 2005. Seeing the two films in tandem, as I did last night, highlights the flaws in the Pennebaker-Hegedus “fly on the wall” approach as well as demonstrating the bankruptcy of horse race style politicking, especially when applied to a predominantly poor and class conscious society like Bolivia’s.
It is extremely difficult to figure out what point “The War Room” is trying to make. Although the film makers are obviously sympathetic to Clinton and his two consultants, they studiously avoid any temptation to allow them to speak directly to the camera about what motivates them. As someone who has heard James Carville speak eloquently (but without much depth) about the problems of American society on the Don Imus show, this dimension is utterly lacking in the film. Instead it is entirely taken up with the messy technical details of how to cultivate Clinton’s image in such a way as to boost his poll numbers, exploit weaknesses in George Bush ’41’s campaign, etc. It is the stuff of Sunday morning television talk shows during an election year and something I have about as much interest in as buying jewelry on the Home Shopping Network.
At the conclusion of the film, after Clinton has been declared winner, Carville tells his assembled troops how they have made history by taking the election process and returning it to the people, holding back a sob in the process. I was struck by how much this reminded me of the maudlin displays in the locker-rooms of the victorious football or baseball team that has won a championship. I almost expected somebody to pour champagne on Carville’s head.
That being said, “The War Room” offers the same kind of entertainment value as the couple’s documentary on Al Franken that I reviewed recently as well as Pennebaker’s premiere film on Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look Back”. Sensing the sort of low-level bad taste in the mouth feeling left by their work, Dylan disavowed the entire project.
James Carville is on camera throughout the film. With his reptilian smile, Machiavellian amorality, and down home Louisiana way of expressing things, he comes across as a wonkish rogue not much different from the man he was trying to elect. Stephanopolous, a Columbia University graduate who was 31 at the time, is clearly smitten with Clinton. His college president manner and his unctuous deference to Clinton is singularly off-putting. One supposes that Pennebaker and Hegedus found him both charming and repellent, just like Bob Dylan.
I suppose that the greatest merit of “The War Room” is that it is a good introduction to “Our Brand is Crisis,” a superior film in every way. Unlike Pennebaker-Hegedus, Rachel Boynton has a definite point of view, although it is expressed primarily by the scenes included throughout the film. The first image one sees is a bullet-riddled corpse on the streets of La Paz, a victim of police violence. Toward the end of the film, on the very same streets, we see a protestor shouting, “Gringo Asshole, Step Down!” (directed at President Goni) and obviously a sentiment she agrees with.
At key scenes in the film, Boynton asks Jeremy Rosner, the key Carville consultant assigned to work with Goni, why he failed. Since he is far too arrogant (like the candidate he worked for) to examine himself critically, it is left up to candidate Evo Morales and ordinary Bolivians to answer this for him. Such is the utter hubris of the Carville consultants that they never seem to understand that the camera is revealing them to be complete assholes.
Tal Silberstein, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, is one such consultant. In a meeting with Goni and his advisers, he tells them that the Bolivian press must be “fed spinach”, which is good for them, rather than milk shakes and hamburgers, which is not. Assuming that Silberstein was being paid $500 per hour for his services, one can only conclude that American imperialism was ever so ingenious in figuring out ways to screw its neighbors to the South. Later on, he advises the Goni campaign to “go negative” against their main rival Manfred Reyes Villa, which means running ads that he lives in an expensive house and has ties to the military. Although this seems to have worked for Goni, the Carville consultants failed to pay attention to what Goni was supposed to stand for. Within a few months, demonstrators were marching on the capitol demanding his ouster.
Jeremy Rosner is the perfect symbol of liberal bad faith. While acknowledging in “politically correct” fashion that the Bolivians have been robbed of their national sovereignty and their minerals going back 500 years, he cannot conceive of the possibility that Goni intends to keep that system going. Most of his annoyance is directed against Evo Morales, who he accuses of having all sorts of “wild” ideas about nationalization. That being stated, he also understands that Goni’s “capitalization” program (a term for privatization) has caused the greatest crisis in the country in over 50 years. That essentially is the conundrum of bourgeois politics in Bolivia. It cannot help but admit that the country is in dire straits, but refuses to consider solutions that fall outside of its orthodoxy.
Goni is a singularly repellent figure. With his European features and his English pronunciation of Spanish (he grew up in the United States), one can understand why people marched in the streets and set up roadblocks to bring his government down. Not only were they getting stabbed in the back by multinational corporations, the man doing the sticking didn’t even look or sound Bolivian. In one memorable scene, he meets with female Bolivian journalists who share his mistrust and fear of the poor. One confesses that the first protest “terrified” her.
When Goni is asked by a Bolivian reporter if the spectacle of poor people marching in the streets moves him, he answers that he will not behave like the mother who only takes notice of a child when it throws a tantrum. That exchange encapsulates the class divide that brought Bolivia to the brink of revolution.
As an added bonus, Boynton’s film is a good introduction to recent Bolivian politics, particularly the importance of using the profits of natural gas sales to fund basic human needs. Goni and then the vice president who succeeded him were overthrown because they proposed that natural gas be exported out of Bolivia through Chilean pipelines, a step that was anathema to the country’s masses. Chile was historically seen as Bolivia’s oppressor, for the simple fact of denying it an outlet to the sea as the result of a 19th century war. The Bolivian people are revealed in this film as determined to nationalize this precious commodity and to exploit it for the common good. God have pity on any politician, Bolivian, Brazilian or American, who gets in their way.