Barack Obama in a still from By the PeopleHey, have you had a chance to catch By the People, the HBO documentary about Barack Obama‘s presidential campaign that began airing this month? Yeah, me too. Did you shed some tears? Uh-huh. Did you marvel at the momentousness of that time? Yep. And isn’t it fantastic to have that all on record, so we can be reminded of how history was made (to borrow an Obama phrase), and how, at one point, it really didn’t look like it could actually happen? Right. And, yeah, well…. Weren’t you also kind of disappointed?

That’s how I felt after watching By the People. I was so looking forward to seeing it that I blogged about it here a year ago, just before the election. I’d say the filmmakers did everything in their power to make a well-polished, well-told documentary depicting the campaign. But the question that kept ringing in my head was, “What did War Room have that this doc doesn’t?”

It’s unfair, but it’s inevitable: By the People is going to be compared to Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker‘s incredible portrayal of Bill Clinton‘s campaign. What does War Room have that By the People doesn’t? The first thing is that it got there first. And that counts for a lot. Getting to see a real, behind-the-scenes look at a presidential campaign for the first time was jaw-dropping. Second, it’s got better characters. You just can’t get better than Clinton strategist James Carville; seeing him in all his lizard-like Cajun glory was incredible. And then his co-stars, campaign advisor George Stephanopoulos and Clinton himself, were great to watch. I’m sorry — I may be a bigger fan of Obama, but he doesn’t match up to the watchability of the slouching and sleepy Bill Clinton. And Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod just doesn’t hold a candle to Carville. The last comparison I’d make is that War Room was shot on 16mm film, which gives the doc a rougher, but more intimate feel than the digital cameras used on By the People.

So, yes, By the People is great; it’s important, and it’s a credit to everyone involved. One of the directors, Alicia Sams, has said that she wanted to make a film that would be a part of the historical record. And she has certainly done that. But I think that for every credible “best documentary” list that will ever be created in the future, The War Room will still top out above By the People.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen