A Filmmaker's Review: "Race for the White House" (Netflix, 2016)
5/5 - The post-modern documentary visuals paid off!
I enjoyed this series far more than I thought I would have initially because I did not think I would have enjoyed a documentary about the American Presidency at all. It’s one of those aspects of history which has never really interested me that much and I’ve never known why. (Maybe it’s because I’m from Britain and so, I’m ingrained with a belief of a guilty pleasure for pomp and decadence). There are many things that I love about this documentary, but before we get on to the slightly funny and maybe even the analytical, I would like to be partly serious for a second. I know very well who this series is narrated by and I am making absolutely zero comment about the narrator or his life. If you would like to bring me up on that, please do not - it has nothing to do with my review or my interests. Take it up with the courts and the man himself if you are so concerned please.
The first thing I liked about this documentary is the post-modern style in which it has been made. We have various close ups on to the various symbols of the episodes. For example: newspaper presses in the episode on John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. There’s also the very old style telephone in the episode on Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. First of all, that looks really good in a montage scene when you’re leading up to a particular climatic point of the elections. Another thing about the post-modern style that was very enjoyable was the fact they had these dramatists acting out the parts of the Presidents and then we also have the photographs from their actual presidency (or what remains of photographs in the older POTUS’s cases). Throughout these drama segments, we have actual scenes re-enacted such as the speeches given, scenes from the backstories of the people involved. Finally, we have the scholars not only talking us through it with themselves on the screen with caption, but we also have the scholars staring to quote the historical figure only for us to get a cut back to the dramatic scenes and the actor to finish the quotation.
It is not only the post-modern style of the documentaries though, it is also the way they are presented to the audience. First of all, we have a very successful use of colour in time. You will see that if you watch the older set episodes that they are more sepia-toned than the episodes that are set in the modern day like the one on Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. The second thing we have is the way in which the set is designed is incredibly intelligent. We have not only various symbols etc., but we also have these markers that we are constantly coming back to. For example: in the episode on John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson you can see the painting behind Adams when he’s initially in the White House - it hangs majestically on the wall. But, the day that Andrew Jackson won the election - it was seen beneath a shroud and the colour scheme is considerably darker.
In conclusion to all of this, we need to really look at what it holds on to when you’ve watched it. You have to sit there and think about what you’re focusing on first because you can’t do everything at once. You will either have to make notes on other things or maybe just watch it again. It is a brilliant documentary if you want to learn about the evolution of American Politics and it is actually very easy to understand as well. There is one more thing you may add your ‘good review’ points from this article. In order to enforce the way in which they keep saying on the documentary that American Presidents must be one of the normal working people they must therefore make the documentary understandable to people of all backgrounds. The age groups and class groups being the most important. I think however, they get the points across brilliantly. Remember, a post-modern style including montages etc. will always succeed and will become part of the storytelling focus of an extensively researched production if you use them in a way that is symbolic.