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MOVIE REVIEW : Two Generals Steal the Show in ‘The War Room’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Republicans will be excused for feeling differently, but the camera can’t help but embrace James Carville. With his impish death’s head grin and the personality of a sardonic Ichabod Crane, Bill Clinton’s preeminent campaign strategist is a natural actor, and “The War Room” (selected theaters) gives him the starring role he thoroughly deserves.

Carville shares screen time with George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s former director of communications and current senior adviser. The Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside of the Arkansas governor’s presidential campaign, with Carville playing Huck Finn to Stephanopoulos’ Tom Sawyer, these lively presences lit up Clinton’s drive to the White House and turn “The War Room” into a tiptop political documentary that offers a candid and entertaining backstage look at a most unlikely electoral Juggernaut.

Co-director D.A. Pennebaker, working here with longtime collaborator (and wife) Chris Hegedus, has been political before. One of the fathers of the cinema verite documentary style, Pennebaker, whose films include “Primary” and “Crisis” as well as the nonpolitical “Don’t Look Back” with Bob Dylan and “Monterey Pop,” was initially reluctant to re-involve himself in the electoral wars.

It fell to co-producers R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger to persuade the grand old man of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking to sign on, just in time for the Democratic National Convention in New York. And Pennebaker and Hegedus initially agreed to focus on the behind-the-scenes staff only because they were denied access to Clinton himself.

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It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, because the workings of the war room, a large space located in an old newspaper building in Little Rock, helped both define and decide the campaign. Created to facilitate open communication between Carville, Stephanopoulos and the young folks in the campaign trenches, the room had the engaging (and eminently cinematic) aura of ragged camaraderie, of a cynical but sincere band of workaholic daredevils out to capture the presidency.

Of the group’s pair of generals, Stephanopoulos was easily the most polished. Always in coat and tie and almost always smiling, the director of communications is a smoothly polished piece of work, giving his staff their post-debate spin orders (“keep repeating that Bush was on the defensive all night”) and later calmly but forcibly talking a Ross Perot operative out of spreading an unpleasant anti-Clinton rumor.

Wearing an LSU T-shirt and with Tums and moral outrage always at the ready, Carville is a very different kind of political animal. As impatient and irascible as he is smart, and he is very smart, Carville is also someone who can’t even imagine being at a loss for words. “He reeks of yesterday, he has the stench of yesterday,” he wails about President Bush, and when the press makes noise about his own candidate’s military status, he complains to reporters that “every time somebody farts the word draft it’s on the front page.”

“The War Room” (Times-rated Family) is full of biting and amusing moments like these, culled from more than 50 hours worth of campaign situations. Since the New Hampshire primary took place before the project got under way, the filmmakers had to play catch-up there.

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The rest of the material was shot by Pennebaker and Nick Doob, a team that got the film’s most telling scenes by the time-honored fashion of simply hanging out until the participants forget you’re there. “The War Room” offers a wonderful selection of campaign snapshots, of would-be scandals that fizzled and improbable worries like the concern that the candidate’s convention signs clashed with each other. You had to be there, and with this film you finally are.

‘The War Room’

Released by October Films. Directors D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus. Producers R.J. Cutler, Wendy Ettinger, Frazer Pennebaker. Executive producers Wendy Ettinger, Frazer Pennebaker. Cinematographers Nick Doob, D.A. Pennebaker, Kevin Rafferty. Editors Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer, D.A. Pennebaker. Sound Charles Arnot, David Dawkins, Chris Hegedus, Judy Karp. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Times-rated Family.

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