Two-Hour Valentine from HBO to Obama

HBO has the answer for those longing for a time when the slogan "hope and change" didn’t ring hollow.

You know.  Roughly 10 months ago.

"By the People: The Election of Barack Obama," debuting at 9 p.m. EST Nov. 3, captures the improbable ascent of an inexperienced junior senator from Illinois to the highest office in the land.

HBO’s documentary slate typically veers left, so it’s hardly breaking news that "By the People" is a two-hour valentine to President Barack Obama.

The folks at MSNBC would be proud.

What’s disconcerting is how dull the documentary proves to be. HBO original programming can be described in many ways, from edgy to thought provoking. Dull rarely enters the equation.

Part of the problem boils down to timing. The country just witnessed  Obama’s dramatic arc from unknown contender to presidential favorite. The new film, directed by Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, doesn’t reveal enough candid moments  to make us want to relive it again so soon.

The duo had expansive access to Obama the candidate from the earliest days
of his presidential run, but with a few exceptions "By the People" trains its  focus on the horse race aspect of the campaign. And when people know which horse won a particular race, the dramatic stakes tend to droop.

The film, like the candidate, is light on policy specifics. And even the reddest red stater would have to admit Obama can charm the socks off a voter in no time.

But that isn’t enough to power a full-length documentary.

"By the People" never shows Obama taking so much as a wrong step. He’s always affable and cool, and nary a foul word is spoken about him save some ugly comments by a few token GOP voters. If the Senator ever misspoke, tripped or otherwise looked remotely human, the footage was left on the cutting room floor.

The film wisely includes some of Obama’s greatest hits, including the soaring speeches which helped him sway both Democrats and Independent voters alike.

Some snippets can’t help but sound flat upon closer review.

"It’s not about fear, it’s about the future," he says, and after watching his administration declare war on a news organization that dares to critique him such sentiments now land with a thud.

And when a campaign worker tells his staffers via speakerphone Obama will beat "whatever a-hole they nominate" it sounds like the surly administration tone we’ve gotten to know since late January 2009.

The early scenes of the then-obscure senator provide the most revealing. Obama works the phones, chats with people on the street and attends local fairs to spread the message of his candidacy. He’s a quick study on how to connect with people from all walks of life, and to see his political gifts on display is truly impressive.

He goes through the motions with an avuncular spirit, never looking like pressing the flesh is beneath him.

His campaign slowly gets traction, thanks to his poignant life story and impressive elocution. It helps that he motivates a swath of young campaign workers who hustle from one event to the next on his behalf.

Once Obama proves he can hang with the presumed Democratic nominee, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the candidate’s campaign ignites with potential.

His campaign from that point on seemed almost flawless in execution, although having a compliant mainstream media on your side is the kind of benefit that’s impossible to measure.

"By the People" then charts nearly every step of the campaign using CNN news snippets to fill in the gaps. Political wonks may enjoy the greatest news hits compilation, but most viewers will long for more personal peeks at Obama and his staffers.

Some scenes do offer a side of the president’s family we rarely see. His daughters frankly discuss his potential candidacy with childlike innocence. His wife stares at her husband during his big speech on race, her jaw clenched, her hands nervously folded in her lap.

And it’s certainly creepy to see a 9-year-old campaign volunteer working the phones on Obama’s behalf, especially when he deals with a caller who doesn’t appear to have all of his or her faculties.

The only blemish on Obama’s campaign, according to "By the People," came when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s hateful comments finally broke through the  mainstream media’s filter. The moment is quickly spun here into a positive for Obama, as his subsequent speech on race defuses the potentially campaign-ending revelations.

The documentary summons a few talking heads — both voters and journalists — who remind us of Obama’s great save while neglecting the full impact of Wright’s relationship with the candidate.

Getting nearly unfettered access to a winning presidential campaign could make for a dynamite documentary no matter one’s political leanings.

"By the People: The Election of Barack Obama" squanders such access for the chance to remind voters why they fell for Obama while the memories are still fresh in mind.