Good documentaries tell us–and, even better, show us–something we don’t already know. This is the problem with By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, which HBO debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET on the anniversary of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency.
Amy Rice and Alicia Sams’ film, which is produced by Ed Norton, ends on election night 2008, and offers a solid overview of the entire campaign, and a pretty straightforward examination of Obama’s appeal. There’s also some tension despite the fact that the climax isn’t a surprise. But it tries too much to be comprehensive, and thus doesn’t take full advantage of its filmmakers’ access.
HBO cites “the behind-the-scenes story” and “all-access pass” of the filmmakers, who started filming Obama two years before his election, and thus were around pre-candidacy, and for moments like Barack Obama’s awkward phone calls to Hillary Clinton, never mind more intimate times. In one fantastic scene, Michelle Obama plays dominoes with Sasha and Malia, and then talks to her husband on the phone. In another, Obama tells an aide, “Who thought about doing a college rally at 8:30? That’s stupid.” We also see him sitting on steps, yawning, while being introduced, and then realizes that he’s up, saying, “is that me?”
What works even better, though, are the behind-the-scenes moments with people connected to Obama and the campaign, like his speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and a campaign staffer, Ronnie Cho, who’s reactions give the film a lot of its emotional weight. The entire movie is stolen, however, by someone you know if you’ve seen in the trailer: Lorenzo, age 9, who makes cold calls and has a frustrating conversation with a person who is absurdly dumb.
But there are too few of those moments. There’s too much in it that feels familiar, even more than a year later, from rallies to speeches. That’s the bulk of the film and, frankly, it’s boring and seems repetitive. We saw this version of Barack Obama a lot, and while history may someday need an overview like this, it’s time now to learn more.
HBO has one of its brief trailers on YouTube, but if you don’t get HBO, you still deserve to meet Lorenzo: