On TV: By the People: The Election of Barack Obama
As we approach this week's first anniversary of Barack Obama's election as the 44th President of the United States, it's a time for remembering the past, contemplating the future and, of course, exploiting whatever random Obamaesque goodness we can find in between. Hence By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, an ostensibly all-access documentary culled from two years in the shadows of the Obama campaign (and premiering Tuesday on HBO). Produced by Edward Norton and directed by the rookie tandem of Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, it's got class and scope to spare. Now if only it could find its teeth.
It starts with promise as Sen. Obama swaggers into the Capitol on the night of the 2006 midterm elections, offering playful asides ("I love elections! They're so much fun!") between congratulatory phone calls to Nancy Pelosi and begging off interviewers' questions about his potential presidential candidacy. Jump ahead to February 2007, not long after he's lobbed his hat in the ring and has established his base camp in Iowa nearly a year ahead the presidential caucuses he would eventually win. The footage, which makes up more than a third of the film, is terrific. His mood is warm, his disposition sincere -- an accessibility that glances off snippets of man-on-the-street chatter lauding his competition. Obama disarms voters one by one, season after season, and his charm takes root in swelling throngs of activists. It's bittersweet stuff, earnest enough to make you long today for the old, organic dynamism of the guy waiting his turn to speak in gyms and on courthouse steps, and who, by the time he reaches Election Night '08, doesn't even let the cameras in the door of his hotel room.
To that end, By the People offers a relatively candid glimpse into how modern presidential politics are covered -- shielded by a necessary aloofness that had already evolved dramatically in the three decades between John F. Kennedy's unprecedented doc showcases in Primary (1960) and Crisis (1963) and Bill Clinton's calculated populism as demonstrated in The War Room (1993). Sixteen years after the latter film, Rice and Sams go into soft mode, drilling only deep enough to understand that Hillary Clinton's emotions trumped Obama's hubris in New Hampshire, or that even a mind as formidable as Obama's can space out on a few talking points during debate prep. The results are anecdotal and largely reactive, with the tastiest bits -- particularly frumpy campaign guru David Axelrod's near-whispering nerves about the early Obama hype, or a press aide's casual takedown of a journalist -- wrung of their juice within seconds of their disclosure. After Iowa, one doesn't sense the filmmakers are flies on the wall so much as flies in the ointment, regarded with deliberation and dutifully steered to everyone but their subject as he cultivates his superhero image behind closed doors.
It's too bad they accept this fate, because the narratives we know are intersecting beneath the campaign's public face -- the selection of Joe Biden as running mate, the decision to take Obama to Germany, those creepy pre-presidential seals and logos, Obama's fundraising prowess... basically the controversial ones -- are what make Obama fundamentally human in this context. You'll meet his relatives in Hawaii, sure, and he'll shed a single tear in a speech following his grandmother's death on the eve of the election. But by the end, the "people" to whom Rice and Sams really seem to be attributing his victory are piling into a hotel room in Chicago, celebrating in private while Oprah and her faceless masses congregate in Grant Park. In any case, we're no closer to any of them.
So we are left with Obama's gravitas and those in its orbit, those spunky speechwriters, teary organizers and mercurial aides who probably will never look better than they do in By the People's glossy afterglow of triumph. If that's the film Norton and Co. wanted to make, so be it. It makes for a terrific anniversary card. And a sadly missed opportunity.