Before Mitt Romney takes the stage today to deliver his acceptance speech, we'll probably get to see a biographical video explaining who Romney is, where he comes from, what he believes, and why he's right for America. The convention film has become one of the centerpieces of these gatherings, so we thought we'd take a little tour of some of the best films from the past to see what makes a good convention film and we might be in for. The convention film may not seem like such a big deal when the campaigns put out videos of some kind or another nearly every day, but it's their only chance to have a highly produced ten minutes or so viewed by tens of millions of voters, all at the same time.
The best convention films have managed to unite the candidate's story with our own stories—how we see ourselves and how we see our country. But it took a while for them to become really effective pieces of propaganda, even though campaign films have existed in one form or another nearly as long as film itself. The first campaign film (a silent one) was produced by Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and candidates eventually went from showing their films in theaters to buying time for them on television. For many elections, it was common practice for a campaign to buy national broadcast time for a 30-minute film, but the biographical film as a prelude to the nominee's acceptance speech began with "A New Beginning," the film Ronald Reagan's campaign made for his 1984 convention. That one is as skillfully executed as you'd expect from the team and the president that redefined modern campaign communication, so it's a good place to start.
Since Reagan was running for re-election, the film begins not with his early life but with his inauguration. It contains much of the soft-focus footage that also appeared in many of the campaign's "Morning in America" ads (as well as a rendition of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," natch) and retells the story of the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981. In this clip, Reagan uses the story not only to reach out to Catholic voters, but to imply that God saved him from death so he could continue his presidency. Reagan's skills as an actor are on ample display:
The most affecting segment of the film comes near the end, and it demonstrates what made Reagan such a powerful communicator. Unlike some other presidents, Reagan often situated himself rhetorically within the populace, talking more about "we" than "I." Reagan himself is not even a participant in his most compelling rhetoric; he's the one telling other people's stories, defining America through ordinary people (Reagan began the now-annual State of the Union tradition of telling the story of a heroic American who sits in the hall). It's seldom clearer than in this clip, which uses narration interwoven with excerpts of a speech he gave on the 40th anniversary of D-Day before aging veterans wiping away tears. "Where do we find such men?" he asks. "The answer came almost as quickly as I'd asked the question. Where we've always found them in this country. On the farms, the shops, the stores and the offices. They just are the product of the freest society the world has ever known."
Reagan's "A New Beginning" was the best convention film ever made–until 1992, when it was surpassed by a film produced by Bill Clinton's friends and fellow Arkansans Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creators of the then-popular television series "Designing Women." It tells Clinton's life story not by reciting a chronology but through a series of vivid vignettes, including this one, where Clinton and his mother tell how a teenage Bill stood up to his abusive step-father:
There were two extraordinary strokes of luck the Clinton campaign took full advantage of. The first was that he happened to have been born in Hope, Arkansas, and the second was that when he met John F. Kennedy as a participant in the Boys Nation program, a camera was rolling and the footage still existed. The image of Kennedy and the boy Clinton shaking hands communicated nearly everything Bill Clinton wanted people to believe about him in 1992: he represented a new generation, he was idealistic and innovative, and perhaps above all, he was brought to this point by the fates themselves. As Kennedy's and Clinton's hands meet, the spark of destiny passes from the doomed king to the boy who does not yet know he is a prince, the epic story to come to its fruition three decades later:
The film's final sequence brings together all the themes that have come before. We see footage of a small town meant to represent Clinton's youth (assumedly it's not actually Hope, but that's something that viewers won't register), a mention of his hardship in not knowing his father, again a brief clip of him and JFK shaking hands, then a vision of his now-happy family life, and finally the train station representing the town of his birth, as Clinton says the film's final words: "I still believe in a place called Hope." It was about as perfect a convention film as you could possibly produce, not least because no one, not even Reagan, could reach through the camera and grab you the way Clinton could.
Unlike Ronald Reagan's re-election film, which was about us as Americans, George W. Bush's re-election film was about George W. Bush–his determination, his heroism, his firmly beating heart. And like most everything at the 2004 convention, it was about September 11. That this is George W. Bush's story and nobody else's is evident from the opening lines: "How do you tell the story of a presidency? How do you tell the story so far? The story is, in part, but inescapably, the story of a man. Which leads, inescapably, to the fact of who he is." Which probably leads, inescapably, somewhere even more profound and manly.
The film is narrated by actor/politician Fred Thompson, mustering every ounce of deep gravity he can. "What did George W. Bush do?" Thompson asks. "Who did he become? And how did that help us?" Like a Ken Burns film, "The Pitch" uses still photos exclusively until the end, when we arrive at the only piece of video, and the climax: George W. Bush throwing a ball. Think that's no big deal? Oh no. As Thompson says, "What he did that night, that man in the arena, he helped us come back. That's the story of this presidency. With the heart of a president, he told us, you keep pitching. No matter what, you keep pitching. No matter what, you go to the game. You go to the mound. You find the plate, and you throw. And you become who you are."
In his campaign's vision, George W. Bush was our comforter, our protector, the embodiment of our strength and our resolve. We didn't need to actually do anything–all we needed to do was watch him, alone on the mound, and he would deliver us.
The films we saw four years ago were far more forgettable than Bush's, Clinton's, or Reagan's, though Obama's was much better than McCain's, much like their respective campaigns as a whole. There was no challenge more acute for Barack Obama in 2008 than convincing the American electorate that he was truly one of them, despite his race, his unusual background, and his unfamiliar name. So his film weaves his personal story through the American story. His grandparents–the husband who "fought in Patton's army," the wife who built bombers during the war–figure prominently:
John McCain's convention film, on the other hand, is just a disaster. The music is ominous when it ought to be gentle, there are jokes that fall flat, and the narration is ham-handed when it ought to be subtle ("What a life. What a faith. What a family."). This clip, from the opening minute, is just the first of many awkward moments:
Given what has come so far, it would be awfully surprising if Mitt Romney's campaign produces something that actually registers with the voters. They have struggled to figure out how to talk about Romney's personal story and switched campaign themes multiple times. There are many people within the Romney campaign who are good at what they do. Their problem is that the raw material they have to work with–particularly their star—may just not be enough to stir anyone's soul.