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Return of the War Room: Not-So-Extreme Makeover

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Sometimes a political documentary plays like a horror movie, and Return of the War Room scared me more than anything I've seen in a while -- (not Palin-could-be-president fear level, but scary). Fifteen years after Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker 's documentary The War Room took us inside Bill Clinton's campaign and made political celebrities of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, the filmmakers have come back with this new Sundance Channel documentary. Return of the War Room is not a sequel but a look backwards, with the old players now reminiscing, talking heads. For a while it seems like the big revelation might be: back then, nobody had Blackberries and Carville had some hair.

But this benign blast from the past creates a stomach-churning jolt a half-hour in when we see the '92 campaign rules posted on the war room wall. Look at how easily they might be used by the Obama campaign today:

Change vs. More of the Same
The Economy, Stupid
Don't forget healthcare
The Debate Stupid

Sure, Bill Clinton defeated the man Mary Matalin cozily calls "Poppy Bush" in the new doc, but this single visual from the old film reminds us how drastically the changes and gains of the Clinton years have been eroded by Poppy's son. Suddenly the film's most urgent, subterranean question rises to the surface: How could we have come so far and ended up back where we started? Or even worse? I froze that frame and went down the list point by point: change is more needed than ever; the economy is stupid and stupider, healthcare is broke and broker, and the debates mere sideshows to attack ads.

From that scene on, I watched the film with a escalating sense of déjà vu, with every backward glance signaling some horrible decline during the George W. years. Lisa Caputo, Hillary Clinton's press secretary during the '92 campaign, recalls being in the crowd in Arkansas as Bill claimed victory. The look on people's faces, she says, was "as if they had taken their country back." Isn't that what so many of us long for all over again? We've lived through an era of a real, Iraq war room, and presidential campaigns so vicious that the Swiftboat and Ayers attacks make the anti-Clinton skirmishes chronicled in the original War Room, like draft-dodging and the Gennifer Flowers affair, seem like the good old days.

I wish Return of the War Room had really explored how campaigns have changed, but that's asking for a different film. This one does what effective political documentaries should: resonate with their times, raising questions that might not even be on the screen. It adds a chilling perspective that might easily be lost in the heat of the current campaign. It didn't make me think we're worse off than we were eight years ago; I knew that. It reminded me we may be worse off than we were 16 years ago! Or, as then-Clinton consultant Mandy Grunwald says in the film, quoting Carville on Bill Clinton's presidency, "What didn't you like, the peace or the prosperity?"