Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's The War Room (1993), now out on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, "captures all the voyeuristic you-are-there immediacy of its Direct Cinema forebears, stretching as far back as 1960's Primary, on which Pennebaker served as editor," begins Bud Wilkins in Slant. "Yet it also signals a sea change in the filmmakers' involvement with behind-the-scenes politics, capturing the process just as quantum leaps in communication technology forever altered the ways campaigning gets done."
As if to emphasize that point, David Weigel, introducing his interview with Hegedus and Pennebaker for Slate (Nigel M Smith talks with them, too, for indieWIRE), writes: "They got lucky, and probably no one will ever get this lucky again."
"The real stroke of fortune," writes Louis Menand for Criterion, "was the discovery, within the chaos of the campaign, of a classic buddy story. In the unconventionally charming and disarming [senior strategist James] Carville and the telegenic and enigmatic adviser George Stephanopoulos, the camera found two new stars. The movie helped launch the television careers (and political reputations) of both men, and it made the Clinton war room one of the big stories of the 1992 election. Every Hollywood buddy picture requires a romance for one of the buds, and — how unforeseen was this? — it turned out that Carville had fallen in love with a woman, Mary Matalin, who was not only as camera-ready as he was but who was deputy campaign manager for Clinton's opponent, George Bush. Even George Cukor might have found it all a little contrived."
From The Return of the War Room, which, as Wilkins notes, is a "2008 follow-up that fills in some of the original narrative's ellipses, explores how the war room concept effected later campaigns, and catches up with key players":
"It's a hugely enjoyable story," writes John Powers for NPR. "The 1992 campaign was a doozy, especially for Team Clinton, which had to cope with everything from 'bimbo eruptions' to the weird campaign of Ross Perot. We watch them dream up political ads, keep everyone on message — 'It's the economy, stupid!' became the famous mantra — and spin the media like a basketball coach working the refs. At one point we see Stephanopolous being interviewed on ABC's Sunday show This Week and realize that, two decades on, he's now the show's host. Although Hegedus and Pennebaker observe this neutrally, the film endows the War Room with an honorable glamor. If Stephanopoulos often seems like a sweet but overbearing altar boy…, Carville, is a flat-out movie star — he has the colorful charm of a wisecracking snake in a Pixar movie."
Scott Tobias at the AV Club: "Given voice mostly by Carville, whose rally-the-troops speeches in the film have become the stuff of legend, the Clintonites in The War Room fuse energy and idealism with combativeness and shrewd calculation. They talk about vision, about health care, about 'it’s the economy, stupid,' but swing for the kneecaps in scenes like one in which they figure out how best to attack George HW Bush for outsourcing production of his campaign materials to Brazil." All in all, The War Room is "a fascinating time capsule, catching a new, empowered Democratic machine in its infancy."
"The best vérité documentarians are usually the ones with the keenest sense of drama," writes Dennis Lim in the Los Angeles Times. "Their work depends on keeping one eye trained on in-the-moment detail and another on the ever-shifting big picture. Crafted with the long term in mind, The War Room keeps the emphasis on character…. Arguably, The War Room endures less as a historical document than as something more timeless. It's a film about the excitement and the labor of politics as it is practiced, its role in the lives of people who see it as a calling, an art, a game and an obsession."