TV Review: HBO’s ‘By the People: The Election of Barack Obama’

11.02.09 8 years ago


It’s not popular to say, because it was one of the post-Aaron Sorkin years, but the sixth season of “The West Wing” is one of my favorites. Perhaps no season of “The West Wing” was more process-oriented, as the writers took us through the rise of young, untested Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and maverick, outspoken Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) as they went through the primaries to secure their parties’ respective nominations for President. Just because the writing rarely sparkled as it did in the Sorkin years didn’t mean that Season Six of “The West Wing” wasn’t the savviest the show ever got about democracy in America.
A less pragmatic, less fictional, but no less fantastical version of a similar story plays out in Amy Rice and Alicia Sams’ “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama,” which premieres on HBO on Monday (Nov. 2) night. Knowing a good thing when they spied it, Rice and Sams began filming Barack Obama in November of 2006, when he was just another junior Senator monitoring midterm election results and barely being whispered about as a candidate for the presidency, at least not in 2008.
“By the People” begins in ernest the following year, as Obama went to Iowa as a decided underdog to seemingly pre-ordained Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The rest isn’t just history, it’s recent history. And it isn’t just recent history, it’s well-recorded and well-reported history, as the run-up to Obama’s election last November has to be the most covered presidential campaign in American annals. 
So what does “By the People” have to add to the discussion? What do we accomplish by looking back at the events of 2007 and 2008 through a prism of 2009?
[Full review after the break…]
Well, the answer to that second question is “Absolutely nothing.” Although “By the People” is being released around the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s election, the filmmakers had neither the time nor the interest in reflecting on the space between the optimism of campaigning and the reality of Obama’s first 10 months in the White House. This isn’t a “We were so excited, but then we realized that the work was going to be arduous and protracted” documentary. The documentary ends at the climax of Election Night 2009, at a peak of emotion and jubilation. It’s only triumphant.
As such, “By the People” is going to be interpreted as a pro-Obama puff piece. And it is, but not necessarily in a way that could be troubling. “By the People” is about democracy, but not really about politics. There’s nothing ideological or issue-based within the movie. It doesn’t advocate or push any point-of-view. Its message is “Something unique happened in 2007 and 2008. We were there.” In this case “presence” has been prioritized over “perspective.” “By the People” has little of interest to say about how or why Obama was elected, but the cameras were there and this is what they saw.
And there are fine moments aplenty, especially from early in the campaign, when Barack Obama was more of an idea than a person or a tangible option for the future. We see the fresh-faced Iowa volunteers, probably the most photogenic group of campaign organizers this side of, well, “The West Wing.” We meet Jon Favreau, the speechwriter responsible for many of Obama’s finest moments. We meet the more established politicos who put their might behind Obama, people like David Axelrod and David Plouffe. And we meet the Obama family, complete with a few marvelously candid moments from Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha. Perhaps my favorite scene in the doc was the future First Lady explaining her initial concerns about her husband’s run, seemingly small things like whether they’re be able to afford he financial hit if she had to leave her job to hit the trail.
As the doc’s title implies, Obama’s election was a grass roots effort and the real stars of the documentary aren’t (or shouldn’t be) the Obamas or even the Favreaus, Axelrods or Plouffes, the inner-circle. I preferred the scenes with Ronnie Cho, with the campaign from the beginning and popping up in nearly every state along the way, often with different and evolving job titles. And HBO rightly thinks little Lorenzo, a nine-year-old working the phones in Iowa, is a breakout star, despite only appearing in one scene. There were thousands of Ronnies and Lorenzos and I wish Rice and Sams had concentrated on a few more of them in the doc’s two-hour running time.
It’s hard to critique the doc’s focus, because I don’t know what Rice and Sams ultimately had to work with, so I don’t know how they came to the decision that doing a touch-ever-base-along-the-way film was better than just, say, making a documentary about Iowa now, a focused and illuminating documentary on Iowa, and then doing a sequel covering other stuff later, perhaps for next November. But I’d have rather seen a documentary that showed me everything about Iowa and let that stand as the defining moment in the campaign, I’d have rather seen a work of synecdoche, as it were, because the Iowa footage is the footage nobody else has, the access that the filmmakers got when Obama was the underdog and a media curiosity, rather than a blanket-covered juggernaut. The Barack Obama of the general election was so much in the public and media eye that the filmmakers can barely add anything at all. 
The access is tremendous, but the documentary cedes that access in so many crucial moments. You want the camera to be there to catch Obama’s first reaction to Clinton’s desperate “It’s 3 a.m.” ad. But it isn’t. You want the camera to be there at any point during Obama’s vice presidential selection process. But it isn’t. You want to see how the campaign is genuinely reacting to controversies like the Wright and Ayres kerfuffles. But that’s absent. You want to see some internal blowback from Obama’s private-then-public comments about Pennsylvania voters who “cling to guns or religion.” Again, no dice. Did the campaign face active displays racism along the way? Was Obama bemused or annoyed when people began demanding his birth certificate? Did he ever have bad things to say, off-the-cuff and off-the-record, about any of his rivals, from Hillary Clinton to John McCain? Apparently that’s not where the access was.
Whenever something bad happens in the campaign, we get the same shots of Axelrod looking slightly concerned, as if that were the only way that the Obama camp handled adversity. I can’t tell if the filmmakers didn’t want to make those controversies a part of their project, or if they were frozen out in certain key moments. I’d almost prefer if it had been the latter, because there’s a naivete to this rose-tinted view of politics that might otherwise be annoying. 
The number of little, humanizing moments are plentiful, but the absence of grand, defining moments is disappointing. You’ll be able to look back at “By the People” and see that Obama was elected because he inspired a portion of the populace that had never been inspired before, but you won’t see why or how he did that. Rice and Sams appear to have been flies on the wall for a lot of excited and emotional reactions, but not for anything substantive. 
So maybe it’s best that “By the People” is premiering when what truly happened are so fresh. It works as a complimentary text to our own memories and, as such, is often diverting and enjoyable. If “By the People” had to stand in as actual history, it wouldn’t play nearly as well. 
“By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” premieres on HBO at on Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 9 p.m. ET.

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