The new 17-minute Obama campaign film by an Academy Award winning documentarian seeks to add an emotional narrative to a presidency that — after a 2008 campaign marked by weeping, adoring crowds — has been oddly remote.
And the film begins with a trick: A sequence of weeping supporters will invoke for Democrats the intense emotions of 2008. The film then cuts sharply into the darkest moments of the 2008 economic crash, and to images of a pensive president.
“Not since the day so Franklin Roosevelt had so much fallen on the shoulders of one president, and when he faced his country, it looked to him for answers,” intones the narrator, Tom Hanks.
The first section of Davis Guggenheim’s film then walks the viewer through a simplified narrative of the Obama presidency. It began amid “the worst six months ever.” Obama, however, “would not dwell in blame or dreamy idealism.”
He faced many looming crises and decided, former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel says, “We’re going to do them all.”
The narrative then plays a bit of intellectual sleight of hand. From an array of economic measures actually aimed at reviving the economy — stimulus spending, tax cuts, and the auto bailout, first of all, but also tax cuts and other measures — the film segues to something a bit less obvious.
“He knew that he couldn’t fix the economy if he didn’t fix health care,” says Hanks.
But the health care law has barely begun to take effect; the economy, the film spends the next several minutes arguing, is on the road to recovery. It’s a seam in the film that shows, and an unresolved question in the Obama narrative that many of his allies and critics still wonder about: What if, as the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has asked, Obama spent his political capital on a second stimulus, instead of health care?
Two thirds of the way through the film, the impulses of Obama’s political admen start to become apparent. There’s stock imagery, and chryons, listing his accomplishments, campaign-ad style, and an impulse to check every box comes through: “Race to the Top… Making College More Affordable…Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.”
But the film will likely succeed in its central goal: Restoring an emotion connection between the president and his supporters, one that has frayed over years of legislative haggling and public compromise. And if the intellectual argument for health care falls a bit short in this form, the emotional case hits home.
“When my mom got cancer, she wasn’t a wealthy woman and it drained all of her resources,” Obama says, leading into Michelle Obama’s sole appearance in the film: “That’s a tough thing to deal with, watching your mother die of something that could have been prevented.”