The War Room

The War Room is a 1993 documentary in which filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker produced an inside look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president of the United States. The filmmakers were granted access to the Clinton campaign center, dubbed by Hillary Clinton as the “war room.” It was filmed mostly in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and featured a number of well-known Little Rock locations. Pennebaker, a respected filmmaker, was especially known for 1967’s Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan and 1968’s Monterey Pop about the legendary music festival. The War Room made stars of campaign strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, won a number of prizes (including the National Board of Review and Cinema Eye Honors Award), and was recognized by the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. It is said to have influenced the way Americans view political campaigns. The movie’s advertising tagine read, “They changed the way campaigns are won.”

Commentators have said that what made The War Room unique was that it did not focus on the candidate—in this case, Governor Bill Clinton. At the beginning of the 1992 Democratic primaries, the filmmakers became interested in Clinton, a virtual unknown outside Arkansas, and they requested permission to film the campaign’s progress. While permission was granted, the filmmakers found little opportunity to interact with Clinton. Instead, they focused on lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos.

The film begins in New Hampshire during that state’s Democratic primary in February 1992. After a number of highly publicized crises, the little-known Clinton emerged as “the comeback kid” in New Hampshire, finishing in second place (after Paul Tsongas). Clinton went on to win the Democratic presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention held in New York City in July 1992.

The film crew followed the campaign to Little Rock, where the Clinton campaign’s national headquarters were located in the Gazette Building. The venerable building at 112 West Third Street, constructed in 1908, had served as the headquarters of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper, which closed in 1991. Over four months, the film crew shot the campaign’s activities inside the building’s huge open space. Pennebaker and Hegedus shot about thirty-five hours of film, which was edited down to about an hour and a half of running time. There are several recognizable Little Rock venues in the film, including downtown streets and the Old State House on Clinton’s victorious election night of November 3, 1992. Clinton himself appears only rarely; in one shot, he is wearing an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt. The majority of the film concerns Carville and Stephanopoulos and how they handle the Clinton campaign’s message, strategy, and responses.

After a successful release in 1993 and subsequent television broadcast, the project was re-released in 2008 as a special DVD edition titled Return of the War Room. In that film, the original movie’s subjects (other than Bill Clinton) are interviewed. By that time, Clinton had spent eight years in the White House as president, Carville had become an international political strategist, and Stephanopoulos had begun hosting television’s Good Morning America.

Other political documentaries by various filmmakers followed, but The War Room is known as the original, a project that may never be duplicated, as campaigns have generally become less open. In a 2012 interview, Hegedus and Pennebaker were asked by Slate magazine if they could make another documentary like The War Room about a presidential campaign. Their response: “No, it’s a totally different world.”

For additional information:
The War Room.” Internet Movie Database. (accessed October 20, 2020).

Weigel, David. “Return to The War Room.” Slate, March 20, 2012.
stephanopoulos_and_james_carville_in_the_war_room_.single.html (accessed October 20, 2020).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society


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