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By the People: The Election of Barack Obama

Now that the U.S. government looks mired in acrimony and frustration, it's good to remember when change seemed inevitable.

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama

Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Lorenzo Rivera, Ronnie Cho, Richard Wolffe, Lynn Sweet
Network: HBO
Director: Amy Rice, Alicia Sams
Air date: 2009-10-03

"What began as a whisper in Springfield soon carried across the cornfields of Iowa, where farmers and factory workers, students and seniors stood up in numbers we have never seen before. They stood up to say that maybe this year we don't have to settle for politics where scoring points is more important than solving problems." Ah, 2008. As endless as the presidential campaign seemed back then, it has since become a source of bracing nostalgia. Now that the U.S. government looks mired in acrimony and frustration, it's good to remember when change seemed inevitable.

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama remembers just that. When Amy Rice and Alicia Sams began tagging along with the Obama campaign, the chances of his success seemed slim. The first term senator from Illinois was already famously charismatic and inspiring, thanks to the speech at the previous Democratic National Convention, but he was also -- back then -- regarded by many as inordinately ambitious and eager, not waiting his turn, and certainly not "experienced" enough. As Dick Armey puts it in a Fox News clip here, "This is a man who's been in town two years, and near as I can tell, hasn’t done a thing."

And besides, there was Hillary.

Still, the dedicated workers and enthusiastic supporters in By the People believe. They believe they can make a difference, that the election can be won, that system can be made to work for good. They believe in their candidate. According to Ronnie Cho, the Polk County, Iowa Organizer who serves as an emotional touchstone throughout the film, Barack Obama "is the biggest and best tool we have in terms of drawing people in and getting them interested." The implication that this is unusual, that too many candidates are in fact not helpful draws or means to get voters "interested," doesn’t need to be stated outright -- but it's an early-on recognized foundation of Obama's campaign. And he appears frequently here, in scenes underscoring his calm and charm, as well as his distinctly sane family. Sasha and Malia, especially, seem astute and sweet and righteously fond of their dad, not to mention adorably mature; even as Malia smiles, "I could spend more time with him," she's also diplomatic: "Sometimes, you know, it's cool going to different places and stuff."

Along with these effective impressions of the candidate's groundedness, the movie offers the sorts of scenes you'd expect: David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs and David Plouffe looking regular, tapping on their BlackBerrys or exchanging backstage glances. In this the film seems a useful companion for Plouffe's new book, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, a look back that's sometimes revealing (of personality details, not "dirt"), and always celebratory. In By the People, the campaign works out because participants are focused and passionate, because their cause is just and their candidate rocks. As Iowa press secretary Tommy Vietor recalls, from the moment he met Obama, he felt assured that he was "uniquely qualified to do anything."

The film's attention to workers like Vietor and Cho distinguishes it from predecessors like The War Room, which foregrounded big personalities who have since become famous in their own right (George Stephanopoulos and James Carville). Cho brings the film crew along as he drives across Iowa. "My parents really came from absolutely nothing," he says, "We lived in a car the first couple years of my life." He's visibly proud to be "the first person in my family to go to college and here I am, working for Barack Obama," a point underlined when he speaks with his mother by phone. Similarly, Mike Blake, who starts the campaign as constituency outreach director in Ohio, then helps to get out the vote in other key states, leans on cliché to express his commitment ("We've been doing this for months, we have to close the deal") before being moved to tears: "This just means too much."

Such focus on "regular," behind-the-scenes, grassroots workers along with stars is strategic, illustrating the film's titular premise. Despite (and also because of) intelligent media strategies, the use of YouTube and TV to make clear the "message," the campaign also relied on people who would make phone calls and knock on doors, people who would make contact with voters. The film touches on the big media moments, from Clinton's helpfully tearful response to a question in New Hampshire (Axelrod: "Hillary had some kind of meltdown") and Obama's transformation of the defeat into a good lesson learned ("I think this is a good thing, we have to earn this") to the Reverend Wright video-loop (leading to the "race speech" in Philadelphia), the Denver Convention, and the nomination of Sarah Palin.

But these spectacles, so familiar now, are less compelling than responses and thinking around them, the repeated image of 27-year-old chief speechwriter Jon Favreau typing speedily on his laptop, crafting a "message" that seems at risk now, in the governing that follows the campaigning. Focused on the people in the field, the organized and faithful team members, the film can now remind those in the White House of how they got there.


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