Mike Klein Online

HBO’s New Docu Hit: The Election of Barack Obama

Atlanta Mike Pix_Press_Club_189_-_Version_2Barack Obama is running hard.  Not for himself, not yet at least, but he’s running hard.  It is the 2006 silly season.  The young, first term, unaccomplished Illinois senator with an oratorical gift is wearing out the campaign trail.  The nation has soured on George W. Bush and Democrats see the midterm election as their opening much like a wily mouse sees sitting cheese.

“I love elections, so much fun,” Obama says, “It’s even more fun when you’re not on the ballot.”

These images are among the first seen in HBO’s new documentary “By The People: The Election of Barack Obama.”   The film’s national broadcast premiere is scheduled for Tuesday evening, November 3.  HBO recently hosted filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams during an invitation only Atlanta premiere at The Carter Center, attended by hundreds.

“The Election of Barack Obama” is unique because nobody else had so much access to the story about how an unknown African-American United States Senator from Illinois could become President of the United States.  Rice and Sams merely thought Obama very intriguing.  It cannot be lost that they recorded something so significant in American political and documentary history.

This is a friendly documentary.  Given unprecedented access, you should not expect a CBS 60 Minutes product.  It’s not there, which is not disappointing in the least.   Rice and Sams show how the best candidate emerged, how Obama articulated something other than a black agenda and how determined and smart advisers propelled the freshman U.S. Senator to the White House.

Young people are everywhere, Obama’s youthful disciples of hope and change.  They populate his campaign and they are vastly more ethnically diverse than his inner circle.  Senior advisers in the film – his campaign manager, chief strategist, chief speech writer and nearly everyone else – are an almost entirely white cast.  The only other dominant African American is Michelle Obama.

“The Election of Barack Obama” focuses extensively on months before the January 2008 Iowa and New Hampshire primaries when Obama was largely an unknown curiosity.  Even African American voters approached on big city streets have never heard of the young senator.

But you sense Hillary Clinton sees a preview of what’s ahead when Democrats address the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Iowa.  The camera finds Clinton watching Obama.  The look in her eyes suggests this is not what the Senator with the famous name expected. This will be hard and there will be no easy ride to the Democratic nomination.  This will take more than Clinton magic.

There are lots of Iowa fairs, Iowa small towns, Iowa parades and visits with Iowa veterans.  There is one humorous moment when the camera catches Obama sitting on a two-step concrete sidewalk.  He nearly misses his on-stage introduction.  Campaign lessons are learned everyday.

“Running for President is like being an astronaut,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign political strategist.  “You can go into the simulator all you want but until you go into space you don’t know what it’s going to be like.”

You soon realize this Obama will never reappear on the campaign trail.  This Obama – especially the 2007 summer and fall version – moves freely along Iowa sidewalks unfettered by the national press pool, without the ever wary Secret Service and there are few day job pressures.  The next time Obama takes to the trail on his own behalf he will be fully encumbered by his day job.

Rice and Sams tell a chronological story.  But early on they recognize the significance of themes, including Obama’s ethnicity even though it is not the candidate’s theme.  They liberally sprinkle in sound from white Iowa voters who disagree about whether someone black should or could be elected.  Nothing in those remarks is crude, but some comments make you wonder.

There are also several “Get Real” moments.  When Iowa polls show Obama leading Clinton by seven points one week before the primary the troops in the office begin to hoot and holler.  Their state director tells them, “Polls don’t mean s###!” and he orders everyone back to work.

Rice and Sams do not become consumed by the primary calendar.  They remain focused on the stories.  They make certain the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers controversies are discussed. They have just enough John McCain and Sarah Palin that you remember there was a general election.  When the economy melts down the race is over long before Election Day.

There is plenty of Axelrod, who you suspect holds the video gate keys.  Axelrod presents himself as a combination court jester and political kingmaker. There is enough wit and sarcasm within Axelrod that you like this version.  There is even one comical moment on Super Tuesday when a Chicago poll worker asks Axelrod whether he would like a Republican or Democratic ballot.

When one of Obama’s senior staff begins to fret about Pennsylvania on Election Day, Axelrod tells him, “When you got a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama, how could you lose?”

Rice and Sams also effectively build subplots around several of the campaign’s younger players. One of those is Ronnie Cho whose mother is an immigrant from Korea.  Cho became the first person in his family to attend college.  Not bad considering the family lived in a car for two years.

Cho is everywhere in all the big vote states as an assistant state director.  He sleeps on the floor and lives on coffee.  When election night is over Cho slumps into a chair near a hotel restroom and begins crying into the phone.  At the other end of that phone call is his oh-so-proud mother.

Lorenzo Rivera is a nine-year-old campaign worker in Iowa.  Articulate and wise well beyond his years, young Lorenzo is utterly frustrated when trying to work the phones for Obama.  Moments like this might have been left on the cutting room floor, but they make the film memorable.

“The Election of Barack Obama” appropriately ends on Election Night.  There is nothing from the Inauguration.  The President-Elect, his wife Michelle, Vice President-Elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill along with friends and advisers prepare to leave their Chicago hotel room to appear before hundreds of thousands gathered in Grant Park.

The final words you hear spoken are from the President-Elect as he tells everyone, “Let’s do this!”

The final images you see are January 2009 photos of President Obama in the Oval Office.

Those images unfold as Woody Guthrie sings “This Land is Your Land.”

This is one really good piece of filmmaking.

Posted Sunday October 25, 2009

Additional Resources

HBO Synopsis: The Election of Barack Obama


HBO Video Trailer: The Election of Barack Obama


October 25, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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