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HBO Obama Documentary: Backstage at the Campaign

4 years ago
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If the Obama team needs a shot in the arm -- as it faces a tough patch ahead with health care legislation and a still-struggling economy -- HBO's new documentary, "By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," will remind the president and his top aides how and why they got to the White House in the first place.

Filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams were fixtures on the Obama campaign trail. I met them when they started filming Obama on his August 2006 Africa trip, though they had starting following Sen. Obama in May 2006, when it was far from obvious that he would even run for president in 2008.

Rice and Sams, with an assist from producer Ed Norton (yes, the actor) wrangled inside access to the Obama operation and their footage provides an important historic record of candid moments from the almost-two-year campaign and the run-up to his announcement.

The film makes its national debut on HBO on Nov. 3, the eve of the one-year anniversary of Obama's election. It was screened for the first time Wednesday at the Armand Hammer Museum in the snazzy Westwood district in Los Angeles.

The film will have a limited run this weekend in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, opening Aug. 7 at the Landmark Sunshine in New York and the Laemmle's Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. There will be an invitation-only screening in Chicago, where Obama had his national campaign headquarters. There may be another for the community in Des Moines, where Rice and Sams lived for weeks while shooting the run-up to the Iowa caucus in 2008.

Some of the curious White House gang is traveling up to New York for an Aug. 8 screening. Norton told me the Obamas have seen it already.

The story of the campaign is told through interviews with Barack and Michelle Obama, campaign aides, and reporters who covered the campaign. What makes this movie different from "The War Room," the much-watched documentary about the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, is that viewers get to go backstage with Obama and his family, witness campaign events as they happened, and see for themselves the joys and frustrations of young staffers close-up.

We see uber-consultant David Axelrod visit to Manny's Deli in Chicago on Super Tuesday and Michelle Obama telling Axelrod, "Don't start crying" on election night last November. Speechwriter Jon Favreau and spokesmen Robert Gibbs and Tommy Vietor are also featured throughout the movie, as is campaign manager David Plouffe.

Various staffers who made the migration from the campaign to the White House -- Ben LaBolt, Dan Pfeiffer, Josh Earnest, Peter Newell, Bill Burton, Julianna Smoot-- have dynamic cameos. Adviser Anita Dunn is seen at the table when the cameras were allowed to record Obama's general election debate prep.

Two staffers have break-out roles: The cameras follow field organizer Ronnie Cho and political whiz Michael Blake as they jump from state to state in the primary and general campaigns. Both are also now in the Obama administration.

The featured reporters, whose interviews throughout the primary and general election help describe the ebb and flow of the campaign, are: CNN's Candy Crowley; Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times; the New Yorker magazine's Ryan Lizza, and Richard Wolffe, formerly with Newsweek. Oh, and yours truly: Lynn Sweet of Politics Daily and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Seen at the Los Angeles screening: actors Woody Harrelson, Tate Donovan, Hill Harper, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, director Brent Ratner, chef Alice Waters, and Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- the inspiration for HBO's own incomparable Ari Gold from the hit show "Entourage."

At the screening, Rice, who had the idea for the documentary, told the audience she and Sams "went through some extreme highs and lows together on the trail." Sams added, "It was the challenge of a life time."

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