By the People, Poliwood: Bittersweet look at 2008 election

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A year later, it's a bittersweet experience watching Amy Rice and Alicia Sams' documentary, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, which premieres at 9PM Tuesday (11.03.09) on HBO.

(Also depressing: There was a time in the not-so-distant past when a film like this - with this kind of access to a successful presidential campaign - would have been a theatrical release.)

Starting on Election Night 2006, the film follows then-Sen. Barack Obama as he launches his presidential campaign, winning the nomination and the election after overcoming a field of better-known opponents - including the all-but-coronated Hillary Rodham Clinton - and a skeptical press corps that regularly predicted his collapse.

The film goes from the 2006 election ("Are you going to run for president?") to Iowa in 2007 and on to the Iowa caucuses, continues through the primaries, then carries him through the general election. It touches on the debates, Sarah Palin, the economy's near-collapse and Republican efforts to demonize Obama - leading up to Election Day 2008 and its intense emotional resonance.

If you were an Obama supporter - which a majority of voting Americans were - it's hard not to get caught up in the memory of moments that were powerful to experience as they were occurring: his Philadelphia speech on race, his acceptance speech at the stadium in Denver, the flood of feelings and tears of joy when West Coast polls closed on Election Day and the TV networks projected Obama as the winner and new president.

Rice and Sams had stunning access, though less to Obama himself as the year went on. But they seemed to regularly be filming such key insiders as campaign overlords David Axelrod and David Plouffe, speechwriter Jon Favreau and communications director Robert Gibbs. Watching a field operative named Ronnie Cho, his enthusiasm infectious to the volunteers he must motivate, brings back the sense of excitement, possibility and, yes, hope, that the Obama campaign generated.

You get behind-the-scenes footage of Obama preparing for the debates with John McCain, dissolving into tired giggles at one moment when he can't remember or recite his bullet points on resurrecting the economy. It's also fascinating to see a stand-in for McCain pelt Obama with accusations about former Weatherman William Ayers - and then see footage of the actual debate, in which McCain uses nearly identical language to attack Obama, who has a well-rehearsed but spontaneous-seeming rebuttal.

That sense of hope - that feeling you had a year ago when Obama was elected - has been under assault for the past year. There have been disappointments, no matter what your issue. Guantanamo, Afghanistan, gays in the military, bank bail-outs, the Dalai Lama refused a visit at the White House, health insurance - need I say more? Everyday, it seems you read something else that makes you wonder what happened to the guy we thought we elected.

So, before watching By the People, it's probably helpful to read Anna Quindlen's well-written cover story in this week's Newsweek, which defends Obama against the crush of outsized expectations. As I said, watching this film is bittersweet because it brings back memories of the dream of change that would rescue us from the dark recesses of Bush-Cheney. But while the approach at the top has changed, Obama is still just one person, trying to thread his way through a system that seems specifically designed to throttle progressive change.

That's Quindlen's point, as well: Obama is a smart guy who has to work in a brutally unforgiving and public system - and he can't do it alone. But he's up against an intransigent opposition with no ideas of its own beyond impeding Obama and causing his agenda to fail.


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