Posted: 11/02/2009


By The People: The Election of Barack Obama


by Matt Fagerholm

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Viewers anticipating a candid look at the evolution of the most influential politician in modern American history should prepare for disappointment. A close inspection of the title reveals that the film is not about Obama per se, but the people who helped catapult him to the highest office in the land, a mere four years after he was elected Senator of Illinois. Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams were increasingly allowed access into his campaign, earning the trust of chief advisors David Plouffe and David Axelrod, as well as members of the Obama family. But the true stars of the picture are tireless campaigners like Ronnie Cho and Mike Blake, whose dedication and passion provide the film with its most memorable moments.

The chief problem with the film is the fact that its subject is a movement, not a man. No human subject is given enough screen time to fully develop as a character. Rice and Sams had so much footage (770 hours, to be exact), that they could’ve easily extended this into a miniseries. As a two-hour documentary, it often feels like too little too late. Most Americans have witnessed firsthand how Obama’s youthful idealism motivated citizens of all ages and races to support him like no politician has been supported since Kennedy. This film will undoubtedly be seen as more valuable with each passing year, since it serves as an indelible record of the period. As an entertainment, the film resembles HBO’s superior narrative drama Recount, in that it manages to build suspense regardless of its inevitable conclusion, though it does occasionally get bogged down in minutia. Perhaps the most talked-about moment in the film is a campaign call made by the remarkably poised Lorenzo Rivera (a nine-year-old Chicagoan) to a hilariously befuddled citizen. It builds to the biggest laugh in the picture, but it also effectively conveys the filmmakers’ central theme: that Obama somehow tapped into the energy and spirit of a young generation.

To be fair, the film does capture some revealing moments of Obama himself, particularly when he turns every obstacle in his path into an opportunity. When he loses New Hampshire to Clinton, he takes the loss as an opportunity to guard himself against hubris. When the Rev. Wright attack machine starts to roar, Obama counters with a stunning and sobering speech about race relations in America. When McCain blatantly lies about Bill Ayers during a debate, Obama shifts the focus back onto the issue his opponent is attempting to avoid: the economy. Perhaps the film’s emotional high point occurs when the filmmakers’ camera simply focuses on Obama’s tearful speech in North Carolina, just after he learned of his grandmother’s passing. Though the film may very well have been made from a liberal perspective, the film itself is uncompromisingly objective. There are few moments of pure joy or celebration, and the filmmakers conspicuously leave out Obama’s landmark speech at the 2004 DNC (which got this whole ball rolling), and his iconic moment of victory at Grant Park.

HBO’s By The People: The Election of Barack Obama premieres at 8pm on November 3rd. Though it still feels like a work in progress, it is definitely worth a look. Since it’s being released after the historic election day (a year to the day), not to mention the countless obstacles faced by the President since he’s been in office, the footage acquires an added layer of poignancy. It reminds citizens that no important battle is ever won without a long and arduous fight. When Obama campaigners celebrate after he wins a recent poll, one of them utters a crucial reminder: “Polls don’t mean s—t.” Presidential elections apparently don’t mean s—t either. By The People reminds the people that the constant struggle for change didn’t end on Election Day.

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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