By the People: The Election of Barack Obama isn’t going to surprise anyone who knows much about our current President or about modern political campaigns. But it is an inspiring reminder of the history-making events of 2008–a celebration of how Obama got to the White House with the help of a lot of volunteers, advisers, and of course voters.
2008 may not have been all that far back in calendar time, but in some ways it feels like a long bygone era. Naturally the year or more since Barack Obama was elected President of the United States and then sworn in has, like every year, brought great changes. So by the time we sit down now to watch By the People: The Election of Barack Obama it feels like a time capsule, a reminder of what things were like Before Reality Set in, capturing of the hope and change wave, the exuberance and optimism that seemed to buoy Obama’s campaign through 2007 and 2008.
And that’s okay. By the People is in no way a hard-hitting expose documentary. It’s a celebration, a parade that starts very small, with one skinny guy with big ears and his family and close advisers in chilly Springfield, Illinois, January 2007, and picks up steam from month to month, county to county, and state to state, until it’s swept millions along into a massive victory march in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008.
While the film does give a slight sense of the casual, “off-stage” Obama, especially in its early sections, directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams aren’t going to show you a lot of warts. And those political junkies who’ve already watched films like 1993’s The War Room (the 1992 Clinton campaign) or Travels with George (the 2000 Bush campaign) aren’t going to learn much new about the behind the scenes of modern campaigns.
Sure, there are peeks at the daily sausage-making process of a campaign, but by now we mostly know how the sausage is made. We see a lot of weary volunteers struggling to keep the faith during the darker days, lots of stressed-out road-warrior advisers putting on a smiling, spinning faces. We spend some time in pale-gray florescent campaign headquarters watching kids (literally) work the phones. We see the endless number of down-home folksy meet-and-greets at Iowa fairs and New Hampshire diners. (Missing from the documentary is a look at how this campaign more than any before harnessed the power of the Internet and online micro-donations. But then who wants to watch a documentary of people typing online?)
One of the things that strikes you as you watch By the People is how most “major moments” in history are not meteor strikes that suddenly fall from the sky—they are cobbled together and carried, dragged, hauled into the history books by weeks, months, years of detailed hard work, day in, day out. Obama stands up on the stages and gives his speeches, but the film lets us see all the workers in local campaign offices who poured so much of their hopes, dreams, time, energy, and silly cheer-leading chants toward getting him there.
In addition to the semi-anonymous volunteers, all the big-name Obama players are here–Michelle, of course, strategist David Axelrod, communications director Robert Gibbs, speechwriter Jon Favreau (no, not the director of Iron Man)—usually hurrying by with Blackberrys in one hand, Starbucks Big Gulps in the other. (The West Wing was right on that point—like sharks, the natural state of political operatives is in motion.) And all the Big Stories of the 2008 campaign are addressed: the battle with Hillary, the Reverend Wright and William Ayers controversies, the arrival of Sarah Palin on the scene. Interestingly, the one person most glossed over in the film is Republican Nominee John McCain—is it a taste of 2008 histories to come that McCain will forever be seen as a secondary star in his own campaign?
By the People shows how many of we people it takes behind the scenes to get a young, relatively unknown candidate elected, but of course, like the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, the film can spend all the time it wants talking to the back-up folks and support teams, but it only really comes to life when the Star is on camera. We see Obama on the stump, in meetings, with his family, with the press, usually polished and focused, even when he’s acting casually. You’re not going to get any deeper insight into who he is or what drives him or what he’s “like” to “hang out with” than you already have from several years of media exposure.
What I found most fascinating about By the People is that the film neatly captures how access to a candidate changes over the course of a campaign. At the start, Obama and his family are open, available, often around to chat, shake hands, goof off a bit for the cameras. But at each step, from the early win in Iowa and the loss in New Hampshire, through Super Tuesday and the eventual clinching of the Democratic nomination, you feel the camera being moved back a little further. Obama appears one-on-one less often, the window view narrows, and when the candidate does stop to chat, he’s much more guarded and careful, more filled with gravitas at the notion of actually running the country, more polished both by the experience of the road and the advice of his growing army of handlers.
Of course this is true for almost every political candidate in history, from presidents to American Idol winners. But By the People has a fantastic final scene in downtown Chicago on election night as Axelrod and others celebrate the official declaration of the win and then make their way from their hotel over to Obama’s prior to his Grant park victory speech. Quickly the advisers and the documentary cameras find themselves in a maze-like gauntlet of Secret Service agents and assistants with clipboards juggling congratulatory calls from the world’s heads of state. And at every doorway, every stairwell, the group is stopped and questioned and slowly moved forward, deeper into the heart of the Thing, toward President-elect Obama himself. And when the documentary cameras finally do make it into the rooms where Obama and his family are gathered, they only catch a brief glimpse of Obama before he’s hustled into a second room, surrounded by people in suits, and the doors slowly close shut.
Naturally, By the People pays close attention to the history-making nature of Obama’s campaign and election, embracing the notion that this campaign was special because it was more than just a new politician selling a new brand of change. The subject of Obama’s race is always there in the film; as a motivational spark for him to start down the long, painful road of a national campaign; in the stories of his youth and his family; and yes, in a somewhat tamed down look at the attitudes of some of his opponents’ supporters—we see McCain voters waving stuffed Curious George monkeys and fixating on Obama’s middle name.
Most of all, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama acts as a victory celebration—a reminder now, one year later after the confetti and balloons are gone and the hard work of actually governing has muted some of the trumpets, of the sheer joy and exuberance so many Americans felt on the evening of November 4, 2008. This is probably not a film for those who voted against Obama or have since opposed his policies. Instead, like This Is It, By the People is primarily a moving, inspiring keepsake for the fans.