Using a deceptively simple structure, director Jeffery Roth examines George H.W. Bush, not as a president – indeed, he steers away from politics – but as a man. The only interviewee is Bush himself, who speaks frankly and personably about his life from babyhood to old age. It's a treat for political junkies and biopic lovers; a little bland for anyone else.
Unless my parents watched his State of the Unions near my crib, I didn’t pay much attention to the first Bush’s presidency. If I wanted a history lesson in what he accomplished as a politician, 41 would be of little use. For incisive interviewing strategies or innovative filmmaking, I’d have to look elsewhere. Yet within its intentionally limited scope, this intimate documentary captures the spirit of a man both celebrated and despised.
In director and producer Jeffery Roth’s previous feature, The Wonder of It All, he interviewed six of the astronauts who walked on the moon, asking about how their extraordinary careers affected their personal lives. Now, in 41, he tells the story George H.W. Bush exclusively in the words of the former president himself. It’s not hard to see the connection between that film and this: he’s interested in the human effect on individuals caught up in grand events.
The film does follow the course of Bush’s political career, including commentary on every important milestone along the way. But his life in the public sphere is of secondary interest: the film spends as much time on Bush’s fishing as he does on his campaign for president. Instead, the camera trails Bush around his compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, faithfully recording his running commentary on his family and the history of the property, as well as his frequent distraction by his mischievous Maltese/Poodle mix, Bebe.
It’s in this natural setting that the stiff politician who gave tinny campaign speeches and made unpopular decisions fades away, leaving a gracious, exceedingly old fashioned man, inflexible in his beliefs but noble in his intentions. He has always known privilege, including affording boarding school during the Great Depression, and yet knows the value of a dollar, complaining about the cost of sending his dog to “graduate school” to be housebroken. Underneath the smiling exterior lies a canny intellect, a man with a great mind who, even at the age of 85, will sit through countless hours of interviews in order to hone his own legacy.
The film is most in its element when it is talking about his youth. Bush apparently provided full access to his personal effects, as we are treated to his home movies and childhood photographs while he reminisces about the Bird-Banding Society and his Naval antics. He is refreshingly frank, right down to talking about his early crushes, including a girl who wore a rubber bathing suit. On a more sober note, he opens up about his daughter, Robin, who died at age four of leukemia.
The focus shifts to his professional rather than his personal life as his career takes off, disrupting the rhythm of the narrative. Bush falls more and more easily into the cadences of a stump speech, transforming the film from a documentary feel to that of an advertisement. Each world event is introduced with contemporary news clips, after which Bush gives his opinion on the matter, and the narrative moves on. This brevity can get very frustrating. It may not be an absolute requirement for a documentary to have multiple sources on each issue, but one can see why it is expected: when there is only one perspective, it appears not only biased, but also incomplete.
The few overtly political statements Bush makes can be surprising. In his opinion, the consequences of Watergate were “not particularly profound,” an assessment “I think most people would agree with.” Like his son after him, he will not admit to having made mistakes, not even in his infamous “read my lips” flip flop. “If I had used different rhetoric, I may have paid a lesser price,” is his only comment on the matter.
Roth does his best to piece together Bush’s anecdotes into an unbroken narrative, with mixed success. When faced with a rough transition between topics, Roth favors long montages of the gorgeous Maine surroundings (if Roth wasn’t paid by the Kennebunkport tourist bureau, he should be). By the end of the film, it feels as if more time has been spent watching Bush gaze majestically into the surf than listening to him talk.
A President grows accustomed to living life in the public sphere, including the inability to completely lay down his or her guard. Roth was therefore unlikely to unearth any shocking revelations about Bush, or expose a part of his personality that was not already apparent. Nor does Roth attempt this: his approach is methodical, but his questions are straightforward and respectful. This is a simple, thoughtful portrait of a man at the end of a storied career, alternately content to rest on his laurels, though disgruntled to be out of commission. He may not be an ordinary guy, but after watching 41, one can’t help but relate to him like any other schmo.
Length: 100 minutes
Distributor: HBO Home Entertainment
Release Date: 12/11/2012
Starring: George H.W. Bush
Directed by: Jeffrey Roth