The use of documentaries in presidential campaigns dates all the way back to 1896 (alongside the rise of moving pictures) with a one-minute 68mm film showing William McKinley receiving news of winning the Republican nomination.
It would, however, take another 50 years before presidential infomercials and biographies became standard procedure for the campaigns.
The documentary medium saw its most prominent, pivotal and hostile usage in the 2004 American presidential campaigns. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, released in June of 2004, was the first of a slew of partisan documentaries released that year. It was followed by the likes of George W. Bush: Faith in the White House and a series of conflicting documentaries on the truth of John Kerry’s military record.
This year has already been marked by a controversial anti-Romney film, King of Bain: When Romney Came to Town, created by Newt Gingrich’s Super PAC. The film was immediately rebuked by Gingrich himself, who said that the documentary was full of factual errors and should be taken down or corrected.
This year, a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (Waiting for “Superman”, An Inconvenient Truth) marks the introduction of President Barack Obama into the 2012 election. The film, The Road We’ve Traveled, chronicles the president’s first term in office. We bring you 10 of the most effective campaign documentaries produced in the midst of presidential election races.
2008: Barack Obama
American Stories, American Solutions
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Davis Guggenheim (son of Charles Guggenheim, the political campaign ad pioneer and documentary filmmaker) first worked with the Obama campaign for this 30-minute infomercial. It aired on all the major networks a few days before the November 2008 election. The film highlights the 2008 financial meltdown and points its finger at outgoing President George W. Bush and eight years of failed policies. It weaves Obama’s anticipated policies — tax breaks for the middle class, healthcare reform — with personal anecdotes of families that have struggled through the crisis.
The film drew mixed response, but it was a ratings success. According to Neilsen, American Stories, American Solutions was seen in 22 percent of households.
1940: Wendell Willkie
The Truth About Taxes
Producer: Republican National Committee
This campaign video was an attack on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and tax policies, comparing them to the similar failed policies from 1930s France. However, its most bold claim was that FDR’s seeking of a third term was akin in corruption “to totalitarian nations of the Old World that plunged Europe into war.” The film then proceeds to show images of German soldiers and Hitler. His criticism of FDR’s re-election found some traction amongst voters, but FDR would go on to win this election in 1940 and a fourth term in 1944.
Result: Not elected.
1924: Calvin Coolidge
President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds
Director/Producer: Lee de Forest
Known as “Silent Cal” when he was Vice President, Calvin Coolidge holds the distinction of being part of the first presidential campaign film that featured sound. This also meant it was the first time Americans had heard the voice of any American president in this format. (He succeeded to the Presidency after Warren G. Harding died in office in 1923.)
The film shows Coolidge delivering his position on business and the American workings classes. His 1924 campaign also holds another distinction: It was the first to produce a campaign film that was longer than a minute. Coolidge would go on to win his first full term in office.
1964: Barry Goldwater
Producers: Clifton White and Russ Walton
This unconventional campaign film begins with a car speeding and skidding in the desert, meant to symbolize the Johnson administration, inter-cut with people dancing in a club to a spy-film soundtrack. It aimed to display the dichotomy between a “moral” America with farmland, smiling children and traditional labor against a “depraved” America with race riots and strippers.
The controversial film was seen as racially divisive, condemned by Goldwater and pulled before it could officially expand further than two markets.
Goldwater would handily lose the election to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, but the film was one of the most controversial aspects of the 1964 campaign, perhaps only outdone by LBJ’s infamous Daisy ad.
Result: Not elected.
1992: Bill Clinton
The Man from Hope
Director: Jeffrey Tuchman
“Hope” may have been emblemized in Shepard Fairey’s 2008 poster for presidential candidate Barack Obama, but it was also a prominent word for Gov. Bill Clinton (born in Hope, Arkansas), whose popular campaign video ended with the metaphor, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
The video played many times in the Fall of 1992 on national cable networks and included a phone number at the end that viewers could call to receive a copy of Clinton’s economic plan.
The film attempted to counter images of Clinton as an “elitist politician” by showing him as a small-town, hard-working man who had been an effective governor in Arkansas.
1968: Hubert Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey: What Manner of a Man
Director: Robert Richter
Produced by multi-award-winning director Robert Richter, this half-hour telecast was shown on broadcast television seven times. In The Election Games and How to Win It, Joseph Napolitan writes that the film “did more to help Humphrey begin his climb in the polls than any other single thing in the campaign… I can’t think of another single incident, speech, program, film, statement that had the impact on the American public that film had.”
Even if the film was the most significant factor in the rise in Humphrey’s numbers, he would go on to lose the presidency to Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in American history.
Richter is said to have felt that the election’s results would have been reversed if the film had been completed a few days earlier.
Result: Not elected.
1960: John F. Kennedy
The New Frontier
Director: Jack Denove
This cinéma vérite campaign video set the standard for the every subsequent presidential campaign by producing a mini-biography of the running candidate. The film used now familiar documentary techniques, deftly weaving together photographs and narration of Kennedy’s childhood, education, military service and his accomplishments in public office. It outlined his economic and military plans, as well, but more interestingly, he addressed issues to coal miners in West Virginia of whether his Catholicism would interfere with his candidacy.
Kennedy would go on to narrowly win the election over Vice President Richard Nixon — sometimes credited to Kennedy’s more telegenic appearance in the television debates.
Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for the Wisconsin primary was also documented in the classic, groundbreaking Robert Drew-produced documentary, Primary.
1984: Ronald Reagan
A New Beginning
Creators: “The Tuesday Team” (including Hal Riney, Philip Dusenberry and Jerry Della Femina)
Like Obama’s 2012 campaign video, this Reagan campaign ad/documentary was an upbeat one that chronicled his first four years in office. The film was significant in that was used in lieu of the traditional nomination speech at the National Convention. This move was later revealed to be a ploy to have the film aired on the three major broadcast networks as it is conventional for networks to broadcast nominating speeches. The film (and nominating speech) would essentially play as a unpaid advertisement for Reagan. The controversial and deceptive move led to CBS and ABC abstaining from broadcasting it in its entirely, while NBC and CNN carried it.
In A New Beginning, media critic Joanne Morreale pins the film as being the first to blend the hallmarks of political ads and documentaries. She wrote, “Much of the film consisted of the carefully crafted, elaborately staged scenes characteristic of advertisements… On the other hand, the elements of A New Beginning typically associated with documentary film production were archival and news footage, travelogue footage of foreign places, voiceover narration, still photographs, ‘expert’ testimonials and interviews with ordinary Americans.”
Reagan would go on to win the election with one of the widest margins ever and Vice President George Bush would recycle imagery from the film for his own campaign videos in 1988.
2004: George W. Bush
Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope
Director: Roger Aranoff
2004 marks a shift for the “campaign documentary” in that it roused the interests of many partisan groups and independent filmmakers to create documentaries on behalf of either President George W. Bush or his opponent, Sen. John Kerry.
Fahrenheit 9/11, which remains the highest-grossing documentary of all time, is an anti-Bush film that criticizes the “War on Terror” and the president’s candidacy. It calls the 2000 election results a fraud and questions the seemingly dubious motives of the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film was followed by films with a similar aim of discrediting the Bush administration such as Bush’s Brain by Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob, and two films by Robert Greenwald, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and Uncovered: The Whole Truth of the War in Iraq.
These films were countered by documentaries that attacked Moore, such as Kevin Knoblock’s Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die (a rip on Fahrenheit 9/11’s subtitle, “The Temperature at Which Freedom Burns”), Fahrenhype 9/11 by Alan Peterson, and Michael Moore Hates America by Michael Wilson.
Positive portrayals of Bush were seen in documentaries such as George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, a film directed by David W. Balsinger and made readily available to churches that showed the president as a deeply religious man, and Roger Aronoff’s Confronting Iraq: Conflict and Hope, which defends President Bush’s war decisions.
2004: John Kerry
Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Director: George Butler
President George W. Bush would go on to win a close re-election bid in 2004 and much of his victory could be tied to a series of smear campaigns by organizations such as Swift Vets and POWs for Truth that publicly contested Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry’s military record.
These claims would be explored in an anti-Kerry film, Stolen Honor, that claims his testimonies in the Winter Soldier Investigations were fabrications, that the bestowing of his various war medals were unwarranted and attempts to link him to notorious anti-war protesters such as Jane Fonda. The film would be shown in parts by Sinclair Broadcasting Group just weeks before the election.
Conversely, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which grossed a modest $614,000 in a theatrical release, presented an honorable narrative of Kerry’s involvement in the Vietnam War effort, home and abroad. The film was handled with a sense of patriotism and opts not to refute claims made in Stolen Honor.
The 2004 election marked the bitterest use of the documentary medium and history will tell if it will remain so.
Result: Not elected.
Jump to a specific election-year video: