Inside “The War Room”

It has been a while since I’ve written about documentaries I’ve watched, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching. The War Room, a 1993 release, chronicles the jobs of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who guide Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus didn’t have direct access to Gov. Clinton, but they were able to follow Carville and Stephanopoulos as they navigated an unusual campaign season.

The film itself begins with the New Hampshire primary, which ended with a surprise Clinton victory. The rest of the film was mostly shot in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton’s campaign headquarters. Surprisingly, I have no memory of the election, as I was 2 years old at the time. I first saw The War Room in 2007 in my AP Government class (thanks, Mrs. Zang), and I was very, very impressed by it. What makes this film so special is the level of access the filmmakers received and the quality of footage they collected. Reporters usually don’t get a campaign’s inner circle until after the election, if at all. D.A. Pennebaker, the celebrated filmmaker behind Don’t Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968), has a long track record of making quality films, which probably helped.

As Election Day 1992 grew nearer and nearer, the filmmakers did an excellent job of capturing the uncertainty in the Clinton campaign. Twenty years later, the outcome is known, but the filmmakers portray a campaign with a less certain fate. It’s hard to say what this film might have looked like had it been made 20 years later, but it’s interesting to note that the campaign was dealing “image” issues that are still relevant today. The film received a March 20 release by the Criterion Collection.

In an election year (or any other year), it’s a must-see film.

Criterion trailer:

Clip of Carville talking about MSM coverage in 1992:


Going ‘Undefeated’: Interviewing an Oscar Nominee

This has been a difficult week for many reasons, mostly because of my paternal grandfather’s passing at the age of 86. But it’s also the week preceding the Academy Awards, one of the highlights of my year no matter what.

This year, I started the week before the Oscars by interviewing current Documentary Feature nominee Dan Lindsay about his film, Undefeated, the True/False Film Fest and how he became enraptured with the documentary medium. Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my life goals is to attend the Academy Awards. I don’t care if I’m a seat-filler—I have just always wanted to be in Hollywood for the biggest night in entertainment. And so to interview Dan Lindsay, a 2001 MU graduate and now an Oscar nominee, is as close as I’ve gotten so far.

Lindsay, originally from Rockford, Ill., went to the University of Missouri to study advertising, but he ended up studying finance and some theatre. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles where he hoped to get some sort of production work, he told me. At a Kinko’s (because there were actual Kinko’s back then…I used to love hanging out at Kinko’s and making copies when I was 4 and 5), Lindsay met a guy with showbiz connections. When 9/11 happened, that contact he met asked if he’d be interested in driving from Los Angeles and New York to make a documentary, and that’s how things began for him.

I’d say more, but I think you should just listen to the interview itself—it’s only the first part of a two-part interview series I produced for KBIA, the NPR affiliate in Columbia, Mo.

70 Years of Documentaries at the Oscars

Last fall, I edited a short video with clips from pretty much every Oscar-winning documentary since the category’s inception in the early 1940s. I’m thinking about re-editing it with footage from this year’s nominees, but I have been quite occupied with homework, reporting and preparing for the Gass Awards and the Academy Awards. The documentary category started out, ostensibly, to honor achievements in chronicling World War II. Consider the first documentary winner:Churchill’s Island. The British Ministry of Information also received recognition for “its vivid and dramatic presentation of the heroism of the RAF in the documentary film, Target for Tonight.” It was a different time, to be sure, much different from the era decades later that produced films which vehemently opposed the Vietnam War.

Thematically, the Academy originally favored World War II and nature documentaries, which are really the same thing at their core. Only in the mid-1950s did films like Helen Keller in Her Story and Men against the Arctic receive any sort of recognition. The Academy proved it could be timely with its 1964 documentary short winner, Nine from Little Rock, the first of Charles Guggenheim’s four Oscars. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong, but more often than not, the films reflect contemporary cultural or social concerns. I’ve been following the Oscars with intensity since 1998, but I didn’t start caring about the documentary category until I saw a Penelope Spheeris film package during the 2002 ceremony. Michael Moore’s controversial win and speech the following year cemented my interest in and respect for the documentary category, and it has only grown since that night.

The documentary categories are changing—new rules stipulate that contenders must be advertised in prominent New York and Los Angeles publications prior to and during their theatrical run in those cities. Apparently, the rest of the country doesn’t matter. But I digress.

This year’s documentary feature category is one of the more unpredictable ones in recent memory. It has usually been one of the first categories I can nail down once the nominees are announced. I tweeted Kristopher Tapley, who maintains the awards blog In Contention, asking him which film was most likely to win. He replied that If a Tree Falls and Undefeated are the current favorites. He said the former is more likely, but I’m not so sure about the category this year. There are some great documentaries on the list, but there are also some that were puzzlingly left out in the cold.

My proposal? Expand the documentary feature category, and present the docs later in the night.

The Unstoppable Bill Cunningham

I’ll be the first to admit that I am anything but à la mode vis-à-vis, well, fashion. I wear polos and T-shirts well into the dead of winter, and I wear button-up dress shirts and ties when formality and professionalism are priorities. So when I started this documentary, the sight of an eightysomething-year-old man nimbly navigating the streets of New York while photographing interesting outfits and physiques (especially female) seemed somewhat peculiar. That’s not to say I didn’t know about Bill Cunningham, the photographer/legend at the New York Times.

For nearly 60 years, Cunningham has traveled on bicycle armed only with his photo equipment and his remarkable sense of wit and duty. This documentary is more than just a tribute to Cunningham—it’s another piece in his massive body of work. The man himself remains a mystery to many, even those who have known him for years. His year of birth has been given as both 1928 and 1929. (I couldn’t find a definitive answer——anyone know?) Cunningham’s work, for those who don’t know (or who didn’t click the link) is revered for capturing people’s candid moments on the street. There’s no end to fashion, he notes in the film, but he has seen styles come and go so frequently he sometimes would place a designer’s new dress in print next to a similar one from 15 years prior.

The film itself is much like Bill, ignoring pretension and what others might think of it, adapting its own style as it goes. That’s not to say there’s not some sort of narrative. Cunningham and the other inhabitants of Carnegie Hall (including Editta Sherman, the 99-year-old celebrity photographer) faced eviction from their living spaces during filming, but Bill just shrugs it off. (He left Carnegie Hall in April 2010; Sherman followed months after.) The film treats it as an afterthought compared to Bill’s daily work.

Cunningham is 80+, but at times moves with the energy of a man one-quarter of his age. There’s a childlike wonder in him. And ambition. He’s a man with stories to tell, and he’s not yet finished.

This film is available on DVD and on Netflix Instant Streaming.

Coming Soon: “Bill Cunningham New York” and “Buck”

Here’s a look at the two films I’m planning on watching this weekend. I’m writing a separate post for both, and I hope to include some early analysis about the documentary races for the 84th Academy Awards this coming February. On a separate note, how about the surprising Hugo win at today’s National Board of Review of Motion Pictures announcement? This might be one of the more unpredictable seasons in recent memory, and the documentary categories will probably reflect that, too.

Bill Cunningham New York


One Step Closer to Oscar: 15 Documentary Features Make the First Cut

The Academy announced a slate of 15 documentary films eligible to be nominated for an Oscar this year. What’s so interesting about this year’s race is that the Academy is allowing documentaries released between Sept. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2011.

Yes, that means documentaries released in the last quarter of 2010 get a shot at the Oscar thanks to the eligibility period, which shifts the docs categories to the same calendar as the other categories. The Academy release lists the 15 films that are inching ever closer to an Oscar nomination.

Battle for Brooklyn (RUMUR Inc.)
Bill Cunningham New York (First Thought Films)
Buck (Cedar Creek Productions)
Hell and Back Again (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
Jane’s Journey (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
The Loving Story (Augusta Films)
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (
Pina (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
Project Nim (Red Box Films)
Semper Fi: Always Faithful (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
Sing Your Song (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC)
Undefeated (Spitfire Pictures)
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
We Were Here (Weissman Projects, LLC)

As always, some deserving documentaries get left off the list. Who thinks the Academy made an error (or errors) of omission?