Appreciation has become an art in 2009. In a society ever more dependent on an instantaneous 24-hour news cycle, the way that we understand things that happen has been warped. In many cases, the timely has trumped the important. Our memories, like Twitter feeds, fill up and clear out faster than it takes to type 160 characters and hit enter.
For better or worse, the old news and information model isn’t going to come back. Understanding and reexamination has become more pressing than before. By extension, because our days are filled with a constant information blitz on everything Obama, a documentary about his merely one-year-old election would seem over-the-top if it weren’t so warranted.
The hope hangover felt by most of America, Obama voter or not, has mostly warn off. The fanaticism that fueled his campaign wilted in the months after he took office. People began to realize that, even if they could see the exits for change down the road, the bus was going to take a little longer to get there than they hoped. Somewhere during the ride, a decent percentage of the populace became outraged at the hero of hope. Produced by Edward Norton the new HBO documentary, which premiered Tuesday November 3, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama leaves the task of reinvigorating appreciation in the 2008 campaign to directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams.
The film is shallow in a necessary way. There aren’t any policy discussions, Obama’s life story is barely opened, the film assumes, correctly, that we all know all about Obama. Instead, we are provided with the scenery that passed most people by during the political speedway leading up to his election. This documentary isn’t about Obama. It’s about the people who pulled him up, put him on their shoulders and hoisted him onto the podium at Grant Park in Chicago last fall.
The opening of the film shows Obama using an archaic, not-so-smart, flip-phone talking to the newly elected speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. About a month before announcing his candidacy for President, an odd time warp occurs where images of the legions of secret service officers lurking around him, the armored luxury vehicles and his head resting on the fine linens in the White House all disappear. Before last fall, Obama was as normal of a guy that any Presidential candidate could be — a humanizing theme that flows throughout the journey of his being elected.
Yet, we get only enough Obama in this film. Instead, we learn about his supporting cast. Campaign communications director Robert Gibbs, media advisor David Axelrod, campaign manager David Plouffe and speechwriter Jon Favreau make up the starting five. By The People shows Obama as a political Kobe Bryant, using these four especially to help the whole team turn a bit of steam into a grassroots freight train. That’s where the bench comes in.
The thousands of anonymous volunteers and low-level campaign staffers are finally given faces and stories, some of them incredibly compelling. Conversely, we reencounter the talking heads, Hilary supporters and pessimistic hometown folk, acting as opponent. The whistle blows at the Iowa Caucus with the haters, doubters and naysayers on one side and the work-to-the-bone, optimistic underdog, Obama team on the other.
From that initial Iowa upset, through the super Tuesday slaughter, past the pivotal Philly speech on race, and the halfway home celebration at Mile High Stadium during the Democratic National Convention, the documentary begins filling in all the back-stage blanks that either haven’t seen the light of day or have been long forgotten by now. These details carve character into a political campaign that came and went so quickly and powerfully that few understood what was actually happening.
To this end, the film is a triumph. It’s an answer. How did this happen? Was it magic? Is Obama some kind of divine superhuman? Throughout the film it’s hard to shake how uncomfortably unlikely the result seems even though we already know it.
Answers come in the films persistence in documenting the help that Obama’s hope needed. Obama’s reliance on his team and his vulnerability are revealed in things like debate preparation, speech help (which is still something Obama worshipers still prefer to ignore), and pure exhaustion. It wasn’t magic. It was people in action.
It’s the ultimate community-organizing story spurred by the ultimate community organizer. Yes, it’s what every championship caliber team has, something that a Cinderella team must have copious amounts of — gumption.
For some the film may just be a nostalgic rehashing of a historical event, for others it might mean enough to re-pop the champagne bottles, leaving them with a hope hangover all over again. Yet, even for those politically opposite, the grassroots gumption of the Obama Presidential campaign is awe-inspiring. Regardless of any opinion about the current President, it’s something to appreciate.