I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW. You spend a good portion of each day actively resenting the amount of real estate in your brain that, over the past year, somehow, horribly, has been colonized by Trump. You also spend a good portion of each day actively trying, trying so hard, to psych yourself up about voting for Clinton—all the while getting flashbacks to that sense of joyless obligation you felt when voting for Gore or Kerry. Over literal years, through three fist-clenching debates, and with scandals and congressional hearings and sexual assaults and Bernie Bros and pneumonia and WikiLeaks and UFOs, the 2016 election has dragged on and on and on. And you are STEADFAST in your determination to give it no more of your time, no more of your attention, no more of your pained effort. And that is 100 percent legit. I am right there with you.


If there's any upside to 2016's presidential garbage, it's that none of this, despite how it feels, is actually new—yes, Trump has pulled America down to deeper depths of political depravity, and yes, the looming Clinton Dynasty might be more unwelcome proof that Americans, despite that whole revolution thing, might have a secret, unspoken wish to go back to hereditary monarchy. But it's worth remembering that the defining sense of 2016—one of panic, of doom, of exhaustion—is actually just what modern elections are like. Four years is about the right amount of time to forget that—to think that each election is a crisis born anew, that each election is a heretofore unexplored low-point in the democratic experiment.

Which brings me (finally, FINALLY, I'm sorry) to The War Room, Chris Hegudus and D.A. Pennebaker's 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign—though Clinton hardly appears in it. Capturing what seems to be every important behind-the-scenes moment of Clinton's intense, rambunctious campaign—headed up by hard-nosed Chief Strategist James Carville and boyish Communications Director George Stephanopoulos—Hegedus and Pennebaker use fly-on-the-wall cameras, handheld running shots, news footage, speeches, and newspaper clips to capture the exhilarating campaign's sense of panic, doom, and exhaustion. We see the Clintons only in snippets—Bill frantically trying to distance himself from Gennifer Flowers, Hillary trying out her shoulder wiggle—but most this is about Carville and Stephanopoulos' team, which is driven by deadlines and polls and the relentless hard-sell. It's a reminder what while presidential campaigns always seem to function as a cult of personality—a devoted few frothing to convince the rest of us that electing their candidate is the only way to avoid annihilation—elections are actually about commerce. It's about about the mechanics of selling a candidate to the press, to the voters, to the candidates themselves.

Last night as I rewatched The War Room with a friend, she put it simply: "This makes The West Wing look like shit."

It also makes The West Wing look phony and hollow and boring, given how unexpected and funny and lively The War Room is, and given that many of the players in film are still around: There are the Clintons, clearly, but Roger Ailes gets a shoutout too, and watching George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail is a weird, sad reminder of his sons' determination to follow suit. But perhaps what's most remarkable is the access Hegedus and Pennebaker have: There's a candidness and honestly here—a straight-forward, unblinking look into how the sausage is made—that's been non-existent in 2016's campaigns. (In Trump's case, that's because he's basically making this shit up as he goes; in Clinton's, it's because that shit is locked down so goddamn tight that not even reporters, let alone a documentary crew, have been allowed in.)

There are whole amazing scenes in The War Room where Carville & Co. (in one case at a conference table littered with empty Budweiser cans, in another at a bar, with Carville, naturally, ordering Bud over Busch) just hash things out: Lines in speeches. Scripts for TV spots. Which reporters they should give which scoops to; which morning show will give them the most time. We see how the campaign's gears turn and work, and, looking back from 2016, we see how familiar it is: the rhetoric, the scandal, the self-righteousness, the panic. It's all familiar. It all makes 2016 feel normal.

There are snippets of Ross Perot's weirdo campaign, which Carville dubs "the single most expensive act of masturbation in the history of the world." (Watching Perot flame out offers a glimpse into an alternate 2016, one in which Trump repeated Perot's trajectory instead of continuing to jerk off this long.) There are glimpses of how charming and charismatic the baby-faced Bill Clinton was during his first race, even in the face of allegations that would bring down any other candidate. We see Hillary Clinton, here filling the role of the dutiful, supportive spouse, acting so differently as to offer moments of cognitive dissonance as we reconcile who she was then and who she is now. We see the volunteers, convinced that this is the one election that truly matters, that this is the one that cannot be lost. And we see the crowds, chanting for Bush and chanting for Clinton, as roving TV cameras seek out new flesh.

In watching The War Room, we don't only see the 1992 election—we also see the 1998 election, and 2004 and 2008 elections, and 2016. We're reminded that this—not the speeches, not the debates, not the TV spots, not the endorsements—this is how politics works. This is how candidates are sold, and this is how we buy them.

There's something cynical in that, sure. But in a year where we could use it, there's also some comfort.

The War Room is available now on Hulu.