And it was absolutely killer. HBO Documentaries does it again. They're a brand I can shop by: Taxi to the Dark Side, The Agronomist, Born Into Brothels, etc. All great documentaries.
"By the People" is no exception. It's an intimate look into Barack Obama's brain trust and his key organizing generals on the ground. It captures intense, emotional, historical moments with strange moods outside fluorescent-lit hallways inside rooms you'd give your left arm to be a fly on the wall in. Then, of course, the camera goes into those rooms. But it only gives you a taste.
In that sense, it leaves you wanting more. One can only imagine the amount of great footage they had leave on the cutting room floor. Hopefully, after this doc airs and the DVD is released, we'll get to see some of those deleted scenes.
In the movie, here are some things you get to see you never would otherwise: Robert Gibbs' adorable little son, David Alexrod yo-yo'ing from an Obama-like calm to very Jew-neurotic about exit polls and Obama shedding a tear or two during a speech the day his grandmother dies and one day before his eventual election. Very touching. You also get to hear his grandmother (audio only) talk about Obama as a boy (a first ever, or at least for me) over shots of some rarely-before-seen family pictures.
You get a wonderful, natural insight into how Obama's wife and kids act together as a family. How well-spoken and adult-sounding Malia, about 9 or 10 at the time, is. The distant look in her eyes when she says she wishes she could see her dad more during the campaign. You get to see how truly fierce in will and personality Michelle is. How much charismatic, black Chicago machismo swagger Obama gains when he's off-stage.
If this all seems a little too intimate and personal, you may be right. But so instrumental to Obama's likability and popularity as a candidate at the time was his narrative and his character. A campaign as modern and media-savvy as this one doesn't just let this one slip by them, uncomfortably. They wanted this. Or at very least they allowed it.
It will inevitably be compared to "The War Room," an ultimately surface-skimming and unsatisfying exposee into how Bill Clinton won the 1992 election, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, a documentarian of legend. But where "The War Room" was sensationalist, "By the People" is tense and emotional. And also matter of fact. It creates a mostly chronological and fairly complete time line of Obama's experience from the 2006 take back of the House by the Democrats to election night, about two years altogether.
The instances of the familiarity this bred between the filmmakers and the campaign staff is best demonstrated when, near the end of the campaign, Obama smiles broadly and waves to the camera like he's actually glad to see them. Like he's relieved, almost.
In one telling moment, he seems mildly surprised the documentary's camera crew made it to the New Hampshire primary after his victorious Iowa caucus, since the media blitz around his campaign grew exponentially.
Obama says something like "You guys stuck around," smiling a politician's smile. And his communications director Robert Gibbs says, "That's because their movie's about to get better." He had no idea.