Full disclosure: I’m an Obama voter, but going in I had my doubts about the wisdom of running a 30-minute Obamamercial. Sure it was a macho move to buy up all that media time (estimated cost: $3.5-4 million) and roadblock the 8 p.m. hour on CBS, NBC, Fox, Univision and various cable networks.
But it also could come off as manipulative and wasteful, like a steel-tanked political machine rolling over America’s living rooms.
Further, from the snippets I’d seen in preview, the film seemed full of American flags and cowboy hats, imagery that conjures up a “Morning Again in America” redux. Sure, after being pounded for weeks as a Marxist and Socialist by McCain and Palin, Obama had to establish his “real-American” credibility to voters on the fence. But by now, that Morning Again route rings pretty hollow. Reagan used those symbols in 1984 because he was running for reelection, based on the gains from his first administration. And after its success, the look became so common that even fake sweeteners were advertised with the same boots-on-the-porch imagery.
And oh no — did the show really start with a shot of a field of amber waves of grain against the Aaron Copeland-ish sound of stirring strings? What are they suggesting: Broadcast it and they will come?
But after sitting and watching the whole thing in real time, I’ve got to say I was moved.
I had some cavils — I could have done without the Google guy and Governor Richardson, along with the very iffy Deval Patrick and other politicians. (Message to Gov. Richardson — lay off the Just for Men a bit!) And having him speak from the wooded version of the Oval Office was a bit heavy-handed.
But the genius of the O-mercial was that it was able to tap into a contemporary feeling that’s very difficult to convey: Morning-After-the-Morning-Again-in-America. That’s a tough place to be without making it depressing, but the 30-minute docu-reality-talk show fluidly covered all the bases (especially in the battle ground states) and hit just the right tones.
What was most impressive was how seamlessly and commandingly the presidential contender communicated, without shouting or deriding his opponents. (He never once mentioned them by name, and even when talking about the past eight years in the opening, “We’ve seen over the last eight years how decisions by a president can have a profound effect on the course of history and on American lives,” he even gave Bush an out, sort of, adding: “Much that’s wrong with our country goes back even farther than that.”
“We’ve been talking about the same problems for decades and nothing is ever done to solve them.”
As a narrator, he has an amazingly mellifluous voice, and his prodigious ability to read a script or speak off the cuff all blended into one continuous, very personal message. He used the stories of four Americans having hard times, and they hit home.
“I can remember a time when I didn’t have to worry like this,” said mother-of-four Rebecca Johnston, and I could relate.
Fifteen or so minutes into the film, shot in Obama Smoothorama-style by Davis Guggenheim, the pace started feeling a bit sluggish. Like OK, we’ve all seen footage of the Democratic convention and the debates. But the story of his life is always moving, and the pictures of him as a little kid with his mother, who died young, are so poignant, and I’ve got to say, heartbreaking. By the end, I didn’t want it to be over.
He used his family just enough — and many parents could relate to reading all of Harry Potter with his older daughter. (That’s quite a job — almost as lengthy as running for president, but then again few things are as demanding as that. And the fact that he looks so crisp and fresh, a young Lincoln, ready for the job after that 18-month beat-down has to have an impact.)
The real trick came at the end — when the scene so seamlessly went live. I couldn’t help but think of Survivor, when we’re watching the tribal council on some remote island and suddenly the contenders look fatter and more made-up, and we know we’re back on a giant sound stage in the USA. It’s a thrilling device, but probably a bit too propaganda-ish for his basic message of truth telling.
And I was interested in the way the Obama logo was animated at the end — it reminded me of the new Pepsi logo.
All in all, I’d give the show an A-minus. I doubt Reagan, “The Great Communicator” himself, could have done better.