How you react to "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," a new documentary premiering tonight on HBO, will be largely a matter of how you feel about Obama himself, and his election and presidency. (Birthers, come not here.) That the film itself is partial to its subject -- not just Obama but the army of campaign workers and supporters who put him in the White House and who are the meat of the film -- is clear even before you watch it: Taking a cue from the campaign's own playbook, HBO's website asks viewers to "spread the word" and "promote this film from your blog or Facebook page." A "special kit with all the tools" is offered to that end via download.
Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams began following Obama a year before he became a presidential candidate, when he was just a newish senator from Illinois who had made a celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and seemed worth looking at. They got lucky -- with each victory, their story got bigger, their movie more epochal. This could have been a film merely about the first serious African American contender for his party's nomination, or a film about the Democrat's first black nominee, or, as it turned out, the country's first black president. It would have been worth watching in any case.
The film unrolls in the thick of things, without the benefit of retrospective comment or perspective, a series of ups and downs, reverses and advances that reminds you of what a long trip it was. Indeed, with its succeeding climaxes -- it is like a three-act play in which every act is the third act -- the film does seem to want to end sooner than it does. Any leg of the journey might have stood as a movie on its own.
If there is a lesson to the film -- and it's a lesson the Obama camp seems to have understood early -- it's that if you are running for president, you should probably not get too worked up over what people say on television, because, though it is a professional necessity to project certitude, no talking head really knows what it's talking about. As we are reminded here, Obama's candidacy was seen as an impossible dream -- until it wasn't.
We're so used to seeing the world through the filter of "the news," that we forget that the news is not the world but only the world refracted, packaged and spun. There are filters here, too -- what the filmmakers have decided to show, what they were allowed to see in the first place. Their unusual access to the campaign is a selling point, but there is access and there is access. In rock 'n' roll terms, there is the pass that gets you to the hospitality room, the pass that gets you backstage, the pass that gets you onstage, the prized all-access pass. And if you are cool, or hot, on top of it, they might let you on the tour bus -- but even that doesn't guarantee access to the star's secret self, or any other parts he or she might not want to let you see. Rice and Sams shadow the candidate, hang at his shoulder, sit with him behind the barricades, and do get to go on the bus, and it is interesting to see him from these less formal angles. But he doesn't exactly unbutton.
Nevertheless, "By the People" has an element of reality missing from most TV news -- and, paradoxically, what it has is art. There are texture and atmosphere here where most TV news is flat and remote. This is less a story of strategy than of energy: What is said is less interesting than how it's said. The twitching leg of campaign strategist David Axelrod, communications director Robert Gibbs working with his son on his lap or his shoulders, the postgraduate slouch of speechwriter Jon Favreau (not, as he must be tired of pointing out, the actor of the same name) convey their own sorts of valuable information.
There is an eye for detail and the well-framed shot, a feel for the light of an Iowa winter, the cushioned hush of a hotel. When the historians of the post-post-apocalyptic future look back, films like this will tell them more about how we lived now than will a thousand hours of CNN.
'By the People: The Election of Barack Obama'
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)