'By The People' Draws Viewers Into Obama's Historic Campaign

Z ON TV

November 01, 2009|By DAVID ZURAWIK

There are three things you should know about the HBO documentary "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama."

First, this two-hour film is, in all likelihood, the document by which the landmark presidential campaign of 2008 will be known to future generations. Think Theodore H. White's book on the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, "The Making of the President."

Second, the documentary is so skillfully crafted that it will transport many viewers back to Nov. 4, 2008, and they will re-experience what they felt on that emotion-charged election night as the returns came in and it was announced that the nation had elected its first African-American president. I am astonished at the visceral and profound ways in which this film affected me.

And after three decades of parsing campaign documentaries, ranging from "Primary" (1960) and "War Room" (1993), to "Journeys With George" (2002), I thought I was immune.

Third, as skeptical as I am about anything born of an alliance between Hollywood and Washington, especially when it might shape national memory of a landmark event, I believe that producer Edward Norton and filmmakers Alicia Sams and Amy Rice have created a documentary that will stand the test of historical scrutiny.

The film establishes its fly-on-the-wall, cinema verite credibility instantly with an atmospheric backstage opening on Nov. 7, 2006, the night of midterm elections. Then-Senator Obama arrives in a hotel war room just as CNN's Wolf Blitzer announces on TV that Ben Cardin has been elected senator from Maryland. Obama and aide Robert Gibbs exchange smiles at the news as the senator from Illinois announces his goal of wanting "every candidate" for whom he campaigned to win.

The overture ends with Obama, in a moment of joy, saying, "I love elections. It's so much fun. It's even more fun when you're not on the ballot."

Quick cut to a snowy Iowa in February 2007, with Obama on the ballot for president of the United States. Inside the modest campaign headquarters, it's about work, not fun, as viewers meet staffer Ronnie Cho, an organizer in his 20s handling Iowa's Polk County for Obama.

Cho's story is one of the narratives that makes "By the People" soar. Following him on and off all the way to election night in 2008 was a brilliant choice by Rice and Sams. Cho represents so many of themes of this film and Obama's campaign: hope, youth, change, multiculturalism and unbridled optimism.

And Cho wears all of his emotions on his sleeve - calling home to his mother from rental cars and motel rooms on the campaign trail, speaking from his heart about what he feels. One measure of the greatness of this film: When Cho cries, you feel his joy, you feel his pain. On election night, his ecstatic, tearful inability to do anything but sob into the phone is overwhelming.

Being able to reach back to midterm elections in 2006 and the opening days of the Iowa caucuses contributes greatly to the power of the documentary. It also helps explain why Sams and Rice got access instead of others. Seeing the kind of hardball the Obama administration is now playing with news outlets like Fox News, it is not unreasonable to wonder why these filmmakers were allowed to get so close to the candidate.

"There was never a very clearly defined proposal and then a blanket acceptance," Norton, an actor and Maryland native, says when asked about access. "It was very much sort of access by stages and slow increments. We never said, 'We want to follow your presidential campaign.' We started talking to them in early in 2006 in terms of a long-term political diary of sorts that chronicled his experiences as freshman senator as he confronted the realities of government and politics."

Norton says he and Rice told Obama and his advisers in their first meetings that they thought there was a "trend toward disengagement with politics by younger generations." They attributed that in part to lack of interest and appeal of "political candidates of the baby boomer generation." They said it was their belief that Obama "represented the new face of politics" and that they would like to try and "use him as a vehicle for introducing new generations to the political experience."

That sensibility - a point of view that looks at the promise of Obama through the eyes of youth - permeates the film. And it extends well beyond Cho.

As the Iowa caucuses heat up, the film catches fire. And it is in part because the cameras of Sams and Rice take us into the trenches with the young campaign workers.

On Christmas Eve, just days before the caucuses themselves, we are in the makeshift Iowa headquarters at night with the staffers and volunteers. Most are far from home, and you can sense an uncertainty about the price they are being asked to pay to help get Obama elected. It is faith, hope and mainly volunteer charity that keeps them hitting the phones and the computer keyboards on the candidate's behalf.

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