New HBO movie, Amy Rice and Alicia Sams “By the People” goes inside Obama campaign

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LOS ANGELES — I met filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams when we all traveled to Africa to cover then-Sen. Barack Obama in August 2006. Rice and Sams were shooting a documentary on a senator who seemed to have a promising future. They started interviewing me and several others about Obama for a movie that none of us at the time knew would end up so soon with scenes of Obama in the Oval Office.

Fast-forward to last Wednesday night, when their HBO documentary on the Obama presidential campaign “By the People, The Election of Barack Obama” was screened for the first time here. The movie, set to air Nov. 3 on HBO, is an important historic document because Rice and Sams had exclusive access to Obama, his family and to top staffers.

Their cameras are there at key backstage moments. (There will be a screening at a Chicago theater at the end of October.)

Not a moment of Africa made it into the film, as the project evolved once Obama decided to run for president. Rice, who lives in New York, and Sams, an Oak Park resident, made their documentary about his White House bid.

The story of nearly two years of the campaign is told mainly through the pictures and voices of Obama and wife Michelle, younger campaign workers and seasoned staffers — Chicago’s David Axelrod, now a senior White House adviser, is a featured player.

We see Obama prepping for a debate and figures now settled in White House jobs in their campaign personas: speechwriter Jon Favreau, assistant press secretary Tommy Vietor, press secretary Robert Gibbs, as well as political hands who jumped from state to state, including Ronnie Cho, now at Homeland Security, and Michael Blake, in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Blake, a Northwestern University graduate, got his start in politics as an intern for Illinois state Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg.

A keeper of a scene takes place Nov. 4, 2008, Election Day, as Obama phones in edits for his victory speech to Favreau about the hard road ahead. There is also an audio interview with Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who said Obama’s one-time ambition was to be a “big-time basketball player.”

Several reporters — including me in my big-screen debut — were interviewed over the course of the campaign and our scenes help explain the ups and downs of Obama’s Democratic primary bid, mainly against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his general election battle with Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee.

Rice lost an older brother in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which awakened her interest in politics. Discussing the film last Wednesday, Rice said she was blown away by Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention speech and thought, “This guy could be the first African-American president.”

She brought Sams into the project and hooked up with actor Edward Norton, whose company produced the film.

People should resist comparing “By the People” to the 1993 documentary on Bill Clinton’s campaign, “The War Room.”

“The War Room” did not have Clinton.

Norton told me, ” ‘The War Room’ is really about the machinery. It is not really about the candidate. . . . And this is, I think, more of a portrait of the movement and the candidate himself.”

At the Los Angeles screening, Sams told the audience, “We tried very hard as we were making this film not to be distracted by the daily news cycle. And to really find the narrative and to tell the story, of not just Barack Obama and his senior staff, but the organizers and volunteers that executed this master plan and won him the presidency.”

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