When documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and his wife, Chris Hegedus, were granted exclusive entrey into Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters, they captured James Carville in a nine-month frenzy managing the Arkansas governor’s run for the White House. Carville wasn’t acting; he was doing his job. No matter. He still gives the performance of the year. His co-strategist, George Stephanopoulos, seems low-key next to this “ragin’ Cajun” who plays politics like a raucous game of high-stakes poker. The film also features a few choice encounters with Mary Matalin, George Bush’s campaign honcho, who plays the game the same way (Matalin and Carville, proving that life does imitate sitcom, are set to marry this month.)
The War Room offers no shocking revelations for those who followed the presidential campaign from the days of the New Hampshire primary and the Gennifer Flowers scandal to the victory celebration. But this peek behind the Clinton scenes shows that Carville’s gifts extend from focusing (“It’s the economy, stupid”) to keeping the staff and the candidate in tune to his relentless rhythm. Watching Carville and Stephanopoulos manipulate the media by playing both footsie and hardball makes for a wickedly funny and irreverent lesson in ’90s power politics.