At The Washington Post this morning, fact checker Glenn Kessler asks whether the Obama campaign film, “The Road We’ve Traveled,” makes a wrong turn in recounting the story of how the President’s mother struggled to obtain health coverage during her cancer treatment. A thousand words later, Kessler reaches his verdict – “three Pinocchios” for including the story, which a biographer had previously debunked.
It is hardly newsworthy that a campaign film would take liberties with the truth and even less so because this movie comes from director Davis Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame. In any documentary, the producers wield tremendous power because they can choose the moments worth documenting and weave them into any narrative they please.
What distinguishes “The Road We’ve Traveled” from other recent works is the audacity with which it changes history, and not in the good way. Far from hiding these revisions, the movie carelessly flaunts them with images and sound bites undermining its heroic narrative of a young president rising to meet his moment.
In the opening minute, the documentary takes us back to the beginning of the road we’ve traveled, i.e., 2008. Guggenheim splices footage of Obama’s election night speech in Chicago with panicked television reports of the financial markets in New York while narrator Tom Hanks asks, “What do we remember in November of 2008?” Well, not those television reports because, as their datelines clearly show, they came from October 2008.
Why does this matter? By November, Congress had already passed the bailout, and the nation’s largest banks had already accepted capital injections. Obama did not have to “shoulder” the worst moments of the financial crisis because his predecessor, President George W. Bush, already had.
At the three-minute mark, the documentary finally gets to Obama’s first day in office. “And when he faced his country, who looked to him for answers, he would not dwell in blame,” Hanks says. Except, of course, for the very next scene in the movie, where Obama does just that in his inaugural address.
“Our time of standing pat – of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed,” Obama says standing not far from his predecessor. If you are wondering who presided over this “time of standing pat,” see the dozens of subsequent Obama speeches where he answers the question without ambiguity.
Toward the documentary’s 15th minute, we learn that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have transformed more than just America. “They changed the way the world sees us,” Hanks says. A picture of Obama sitting with the Dalai Lama follows even though Obama became the first president in nearly a generation to refuse to see the Tibetan spiritual leader in 2009.
These are just a few examples of the documentary’s delightful ironies. Anyone with the patience to watch the full 17 minutes will find many more. Even with the best of editors, the Obama reelection narrative would have many holes, but who would have guessed a movie called “The Road We’ve Traveled” would bridge them so poorly. Perhaps having Hollywood on your side isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.