Last Night's Television: By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, Sat, BBC2
Conspiracy Files: Osama Bin Laden – Dead or Alive?, Sun, BBC2
Welcome to the party
Monday 11 January 2010
In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland the caucus-race is a competition with no fixed starting point and no finishing line, which concludes with the announcement that "everybody has won and all must have prizes."
An American caucus race – as depicted in By the People: the Election of Barack Obama – is only marginally less surreal, a bizarrely physical celebration of the people's will, during which voters cram into school halls and gymnasiums and try to amass the biggest crowd they can for their preferred candidate, coaxing and cat-calling to lure defectors to their ranks. It is – rather literally – a party game, but one into which staggering amounts of energy and money have often been poured. Amy Rice and Alicia Sams's behind-the-scenes documentary about the Obama campaign opened with the Iowa caucus, the first big test of the candidate's prospects and organisation.
Strictly speaking, though, Rice and Sams had started work a little earlier, fixing on Obama as a likely subject when he had yet to announce that he was running for candidate. When he said in the first scenes here, "I love elections... it's so much fun," he wasn't talking about his own race but those of the political colleagues he was campaigning for. And the fact that the film-makers were on board before the media frenzy really started almost certainly helped them to get a premium seat for the wild ride that followed. What they were hoping to do was make another The War Room, D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's terrific documentary about the spin-doctoring behind Clinton's 1992 campaign. And though they didn't quite succeed – for reasons to do with the controlled professionalism of the Obama team – they still delivered a film that was a treat for election addicts and West Wing loyalists.
One pleasure was the compressed reminder that you got of the up-and-down drama of Obama's bid, from the euphoria of his unexpected Iowa triumph (following terrific hustings speeches and a massive volunteer effort) to the setbacks in New Hampshire and the potentially devastating revelations about Pastor Jeremiah Wright. The film emotionally captured the optimism of Obama's volunteers at a time when optimism was pretty much all they had going for them. "Wait... is he African-American?" said one vox-pop interviewee guilelessly, after being asked for her opinion of him. "That would be really cool if he was our next president then!" Meanwhile, another volunteer – only nine years old and already doing a stint on the phone banks– found that people can't even get their heads around the candidate's name, let alone his policies. The activists' joy when he wins – tearful and faintly incredulous – is that of people discovering that they can dream awake.
It reminded you too of just how good Obama could be on the stump, pulling out terrific speeches when he needed to and spotting the opportunity concealed within every setback. What it didn't do, barring a couple of passing moments, was get you very far behind the public face of the campaign. At one point, Obama had to leave a congratulatory message for Hillary, and it was impossible to believe that this moment wouldn't have been followed by a bit of sardonic banter among the entourage. Here, though, everybody stayed on message. And though there was a nice moment when Obama forgot his own policy proposals during a pre-debate rehearsal and teased himself ("Huh? I don't remember my plan," he said in a Forrest Gump voice, "but it's a really good plan") that was pretty much all you got in the way of backstage bloopers. Rice and Sams could boast of plenty of face time with the candidate – even squeezing into his suite with Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod just after his election has been confirmed – but, as fascinating as their film was, you never quite felt that they caught the candidate off duty. Which may, of course, be one of the reasons he won.
The Conspiracy Files film about Osama Bin Laden was a dubious affair, which gave regrettable amounts of air time to an obsessive 9/11 "truther" called David Ray Griffin. Griffinaving theorised that 9/11 was a government plot, naturally had to deal with that embarrassing video footage in which Sheikh Osama chucklingly owns up to the whole thing. The way he did that was, naturally, to suggest that the whole thing was a government hoax, and that Bin Laden actually died in the Tora Bora mountains years ago. All the subsequent tapes have been worked up as part of a nefarious special-effects programme, intended to create a distracting boogie man. Ray Griffin only got the airtime, as it turned out, so that Conspiracy Files could systematically work their way through his claims and dismiss them. But I think they grievously overestimated the capacity of common sense to mop up the pollution of paranoid fantasy that they actively helped to spread around in the first 45 minutes of the film.
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