To many, it may be the greatest story ever told. I started my career in journalism covering the 2008 Presidential election, and I found it to be more compelling than any movie, book or sporting event.
Now, it would be impossible for a two-hour movie to do justice to the monumental event that was the election of Barack Obama, but By the People makes a good effort.
The story starts off, as many epic tails do, with humble beginnings. Beginning in Iowa, with Obama’s rag tag team of college students and twenty-somethings campaigning for the Iowa caucuses, the movie sets the stage for a great David vs Goliath tale.
The footage from Iowa is a great look at what goes into grass-roots campaigning. A Black man with the name, Barack Housein Obama, becoming president, is but a dream in some idealistic young people’s heads, as they campaign in the mostly white state of Iowa. We get to see Obama’s team of young college students do the grunt work of campaigning, making phone calls, going door to door and attending the state fair.
The star of the movie is obviously Obama, but the movie gives insight into the lives of his main advisers and his campaign foot soldiers. It’s nice to see Obama’s team of Plouffe, Gibbs and Axelrod as campaign lieutenants. Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs is humanized through his interactions with his look-alike young son, while Axelrod and Plouffe show their skills as wise, measured advisers.
After Iowa, most of what happened in the movie has already been covered by the 24 hours news cycle. The showdown with Hillary plays a major part of the movie. From being down 30 points in the polls, to finally beating her in a long drawn out battle, the movie makes the showdown with Hillary the highlight of the film. One poignant moment in the movie is when you see Obama make a phone call to Hillary after she won Ohio. This moment shows the respect Obama had for her, which led to him eventually making her Secretary of State.
Two other phone calls offer insight into Obama’s personal life. In a phone call with his grandmother, Toots, we can see the deep bond he had with her. The bond resurfaces later, on the day before the election, when he calls her a quiet hero after he found out she passed away. Another phone call with his daughters, Malia and Sasha, shows that despite the tremendous challenges he faced, at the end of the day, he’s still a regular dad.
In terms of politics, there’s not much extra insight in the movie that any one who followed the campaign wouldn’t have seen already. You can see the stress on the campaign staff that the Reverend Wright scandal caused and the story and preparations behind Obama’s historic speech on race.
Another member of Obama’s team, speech writer, John Favreau, gets some star-making screen time. It’s nice to see the laid back, young man write grand speeches for future president Obama with jeans and a “massholes” shirt on.
The election against McCain is almost an afterthought after the epic battle with Hillary Clinton. Sarah Palin and her hate-mob gets a little screen time for her “pallin around with terrorists line” and the mob’s angry reaction to Obama. McCain is almost a no-show except for his William Ayers attack on Obama. It was interesting to see Obama prepare for the attack against a McCain stunt double before the debate.
Overall, it was great to relive the historic campaign, but I was expecting more behind the scenes access. Most of the movie, you could watch through YouTube news clips.
Ronnie Cho, the son of Korean immigrants, is one of the few people in the movie you might not have heard about during the election. He began as a canvasser in the Iowa caucuses and continued using his positive, idealistic energy all the way through the election. When he breaks down in tears of joy after Obama wins the general election, it is the most personal and touching moment in the movie.
Cho and his fellow young campaign grunt workers are the best part of the movie. Seeing how a few idealistic, hardworking young people helped lead to Obama’s historic election victory makes you really believe that anything is possible. In the words of John F. Kennedy, a torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, and if the movie is any indicator, the torch is in good hands.