Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union

Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union Is Comprehensive but Lacks a Thesis

Dept. of


Five hours and 10 minutes later and I’m still not quite sure what director Peter Kunhardt was going for with Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union. The brand new documentary series on HBO, an incredibly comprehensive chronicle of Barack Obama’s journey from a Black man with a Muslim name, to President of the United States, and beyond, is dense, cleverly constructed, and speaks in broad strokes. But this birds eye view, while encyclopedic, does feel like it’s lacking a thesis.

This is a documentary series that tries to cover so much ground that it ends up not having anything important to say. It’s missing an authorial voice. It’s bereft of a point of view.

Told over three parts, Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union makes its way from Obama’s youth, to his political awakening in Chicago, through his Presidential runs and time in The White House, all the way to America’s backlash to his presidency with the election of Donald Trump.

The primary voice of this series is Obama himself. Or rather a selection of Obamas throughout the years. To tell this story, Kunhardt relies on interviews that the former president has given throughout his public life, carefully splicing that together along with a vast collection of talking heads that include friends, colleagues, advisors, aides, and former allies.

One of These Is Not Like the Others

Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union

Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Barack Obama is special. His upbringing alone – his father from Kenya, his mother from Kansas, born and raised in Hawaii, before spending his formative years in Indonesia, and then studying in the best institutions in the world – makes him, if not the most unique individual to take on the presidency, then at least the most intriguing.

In fact, the collective experience of his life, from not having a father figure, to the struggles of being biracial, to being brought up seeing America from both within and without, made him perfectly suited for the job of being the leader of a country that was so unrelentingly divided. Political inexperience aside.

But you knew all of that already.

In fact, through his many books, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of public remarks, I’d argue that there is very little we don’t know about Barack Obama. Over the years, he has very carefully curated the story of his life, so much so that it has become legend. One that is seemingly reinforced by the many individuals assembled for this effort.

Given that this documentary series is on HBO, it does go to some places that the Obamas’ own content machine would not venture. The perspective of Jeremiah Wright (Obama’s longtime pastor whose incendiary remarks about America caused the media and the Democrats to freak out back in 2008) is something we weren’t likely to see in a Higher Ground production. Or even the rawness of Bobby Rush’s resentment towards Obama for running against him in 2000.

But these moments are too few and far between. And every time they came up I found myself wishing that Kunhardt would stop to take a deeper dive into what the Wrights, Rushes, and Wests had to say. Ironically, Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union works best when it strays from Obama’s story. In those brief moments when it takes on questions of race, and identity, and injustice. Most likely because those are the moments that felt the most novel.

Too Close For Perspective

Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union

Then again, maybe this is the best we’re going to get for now.

On the one hand, the Obamas still maintain a certain level of control over their (and their family’s) narrative. (A fact that is apparent even in the selection of photos and footage that is used throughout this documentary.) And if his story is already so well established, then maybe documentarians need to focus more on how its impacted, possibly even inspired, America and the world at large.

On the other hand, the former president is still very much an active and influential participant in American politics, with his presidency far too close (historically speaking) for us to have any real perspective on its lasting legacy. Surely this would colour, not just our ability to gauge long term consequence, but also how open and honest people are willing to be about both his successes and his failures.

There is no denying that Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union is an impressive work. It is as complete a look as we’re going to get on the once in a generation mind that is Barack Obama. There is so much detail here, and Kunhardt does very well in capturing the entirety of the Obama presidency. This documentary works as a historical document. What it doesn’t do, however, is add anything particularly new to the narrative.

HBO’s three-part documentary, Obama: In Pursuit Of A More Perfect Union, debuts same time as the U.S. over three consecutive days from Wednesday, August 4, exclusively on HBO GO.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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