Last week, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign released a 17-minute documentary called The Road We’ve Traveled, directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’), which makes the case that we all give President Obama another four years in the White House. In case it seems like an innovative, new way to speak to voters through the nonfiction form, I recommend you check out fantastic collection of similar documentaries on POV’s blog that date back to 1924, when Calvin Coolidge brought the house down by reading a speech on notecards.
So, yes, Guggenheim follows in a proud tradition. Well, maybe not so proud. Many of these documentaries are naïve and clumsy, dogmatic and jingoistic. Guggenheim’s is quite a different animal.
The Road We’ve Traveled has a clever beginning, starting with that lovely evening when Obama and his family walked out in front of a tearfully ecstatic crowd on the night of his election. It’s a moment of hope and dreams, which Guggenheim cuts down to size, reminding us that, in truth, the country was in an economic tailspin. The film proceeds to show how Obama started his presidency, having inherited a mess, and how he’s done what he can to bring it back to a better place, whether it’s through bailing out Detroit or killing Bin Laden.
The message is clear, but the approach is subtle. Guggenheim doesn’t deploy too many tricks to tug at our hearts or swell our pride. I’d say he, and the people behind Obama’s re-election, have a different read on the American public. Compared to the presidential docs of the past, there’s relatively little blind cheering going on. Nowhere is this more clear than in the title. Doesn’t The Road We’ve Traveled remind you of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”? And that American classic is all about looking back “with a sigh.” It’s melancholy about the decisions we have to make. When have you ever heard a standing president admit such ambivalence?
And yet, despite its impressively measured approach, I couldn’t help thinking about Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning Inside Job, when watching The Road We’ve Traveled. Ferguson’s incisive examination of the economic meltdown seriously questions Obama’s decision to double down by hiring the very same advisers (Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, etc.) who either committed or turned a blind eye to the economic malfeasance that got us into this mess.
It made me kind of sad to see how this President, whom I will vote for in the election, hasn’t fulfilled the promise of real change he made before he was elected. Not that Obama or Guggenheim would necessarily agree, but there’s certainly no room for such blatant self-criticism in a documentary created to win over a majority of American voters. Get ready for more stomach-turning promotion, even of the subtle variety, in the months to come.