Can 'Mitt' Be the Next 'The War Room'?

The landmark documentary about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign was a gamble.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop at Lansing Community College May 8, 2012, in Lansing, Mich.
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News that Netflix would be releasing the documentary "Mitt" about former Gov. Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run was met with some bafflement and mockery- much of it concerned with the state of Romney's hair in the film's poster art. But a documentary about a well-covered campaign has precedent, with 1993's "The War Room" - about the path Bill Clinton took to the presidency - representing the high-water mark for the genre.

While there have been a number of campaign films made since, "The War Room" is still considered a landmark work of cinema verite, praised for bringing a fresh eye to a race covered meticulously by the press.

"Is any stone left unturned in a modern Presidential campaign? When every last whistle-stop and handshake is thoroughly documented, can there be anything more for a film maker to find?" as Janet Maslin put it in her 1993 New York Times review , before concluding that the film "finds new facets of the story and manages to coax cliffhanging suspense out of a fait accompli."

Additionally, "The War Room" has withstood the test of time. The reviews for its 2012 DVD release matched or even exceeded the initial praise lauded on the film. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, the filmmakers behind "The War Room," spoke to U.S. News about how it came together and its legacy today.

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Choosing a Candidate

Coursing through the blood of "The War Room" is the growing optimism as it becomes clear Clinton is going to win the election, and some of the initial reaction to "Mitt" amounts to, "Who would want to watch a film about the guy who lost?" But when Hegedus and Pennebaker first embedded into the campaign, Clinton was not the winning candidate the film ultimately captures.

"He was kind of what we were left with," says Hegedus. "The only campaign we could get the littlest fraction of access to was the Clinton campaign."

Pennebaker remembers Clinton being a fourth-place candidate when they jumped in, and "The War Room" starts with a number of challenges plaguing the campaign - including the so-called "bimbo eruptions," draft-dodging accusations and Ross Perot's odd outside run.

"We just assumed he would somehow win," Pennebaker says, to which Hegedus counters, "It was a source of anxiety for those people that stress like me."

Picking Their Stars

"The War Room" focuses its lens not on the candidate himself, but on two of his strategists: James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, usually in the messy conference rooms of campaign headquarters dubbed "The War Room" by Hillary Clinton.

The fiery "Ragin' Cajun" Carville and the fresh-faced, goody two-shoes Stephanopoulos make for a dynamic odd couple, with Carville especially stealing the show.

"You couldn't ask for a better character than James Carville. He's always on stage and in some ways the war room was perfect for him because he always has an audience," Hegedus says. "George was a buddy story ... they were so opposite and yet worked together so well."

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Both went on to carve out media careers for themselves - Carville appearing often in film and television, and Stephanopoulos hosting "Good Morning America" and "This Week." Twenty years later, they're still recognizable names.

But like the choice of Clinton's campaign itself, Hegedus and Pennebaker settled on Carville and Stephanopoulos in part out of necessity. Clinton already had a Newsweek photographer and journalist following him around, Hegedus says, "so we were really left with the campaign staff - it was kind of a booby prize. In the end, we stumbled across James Carville and he was heading strategy and it seemed like it was really the place to be."

Getting Candor From Their Subjects

"One of the aspects of how we try to shoot is that we're very small - it's just Penny and I shooting and we don't use lights and we try to be in the background," Hegedus says.

It pays off. The camera captures Carville and the other strategists talking about subject matter unthinkable in today's media-phobic age of politicking, in a manner that would offend the sensitivities of everyday ears. F-bombs fly as they tweak messaging, push aggressive attack strategies and argue with reporters on the phone. Even the mild-mannered Stephanopoulos is caught on a call scolding someone pushing a Clinton rumor and speaking in ominous "Godfatherese" threats, as the New York Times review put it.