New Documentary

‘41’ Review: HBO’s Bland Documentary Valentine to George H.W. Bush

‘41’ is being billed as ‘personal, not political.’ Lloyd Grove on why that trivializes Bush’s impact.

Brian Blake

Let’s stipulate that George Herbert Walker Bush—the subject of 41, an HBO documentary that premieres June 14 at 9 p.m.—is a lovely man. Bush, who celebrates his 88th birthday June 12, has beautiful manners, personal warmth, physical courage, admirable loyalty, and a well-developed sense of fun (albeit an occasionally puerile sense of humor).

The judgment of history may ultimately conclude that he was a decent president, too. He was certainly more prudent with the nation’s fiscal and military resources than his daredevil son, 43. The elder Bush might have had trouble with “the vision thing,” as he dismissively described (with typical eloquence) one of his shortcomings, but he did the best he could to handle responsibly—and sanely—the problems that showed up in his inbox.

It’s too bad, then, that Hollywood impresario Jerry Weintraub—the elder Bush’s unlikely friend and neighbor in Kennebunkport, Maine, who produced this prolonged valentine—decided, along with director Jeff Roth, to trivialize Bush’s impact on the nation and the world.

Weintraub, the producer of the Ocean’s Eleven and Karate Kid trilogies as well as My Stepmother Is an Alien, has been out on the media circuit flogging 41 as “a personal, not political” look at the former president’s life. That’s an eccentric choice (much like asking Mrs. Lincoln how she liked the play) given that Bush, from the early 1960s onward, devoted himself largely to political advancement.

Indeed, his 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who doesn’t even rate a mention in this film, set a new standard for ugly aggression, as might be expected from a sustained assault planned by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes. It even descended into barely subliminal race-baiting with its frequent references—in Bush’s stump speeches as well as in a notorious, supposedly independent television spot—to black convicted murderer Willie Horton, who raped a white woman and pistol-whipped her fiancé after escaping from a furlough program endorsed by Gov. Dukakis. In other words, the manner in which Bush became president ran counter to his highly principled self-image—just one of the fascinating paradoxes that 41 fails to explore.

Meanwhile, HBO considers it a great coup that this 1 hour 40 minute documentary is narrated by the former president, prompted by softball questions from director Roth off-camera. But Bush, by his own admission, was never a compelling communicator or, for that matter, particularly introspective or insightful—maybe one of the reasons he hasn’t written a White House memoir. “Don’t put me on the couch,” he regularly admonished journalists.

To be fair, there are some rewarding moments:

*Bush discusses his pre-Barbara crushes, revealing that a girl named B.B. Thurston, whose daddy owned a yacht, “wore a rubber bathing suit to die for.”

*When he was courting his future wife, Barbara Pierce, the daughter of a publishing executive in Rye, N.Y., “I don’t think the mother liked me very much.”

*As a married student at Yale, he liked to go to the roof of his apartment building to ogle his 75-year-old landlady: “Hurry on up! Mrs. Seymour is taking a shower and you can see her naked!” Bush recounts. “It wasn’t very mature of us.”

*No longer running for anything, Bush finally ends the politically expedient fiction that he’s a pork-rind-loving Texan instead of an Eastern establishment blueblood. Touting his qualifications for the presidency, including jobs as U.S. envoy to China and director of the CIA, he tellingly remarks: “It wasn’t like out of the clear blue sky some hick from West Texas coming in.”

*He remains exceedingly bitter about the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, which helped Bill Clinton win the White House: “Can’t talk about him. I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him.”

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Alas, these are rare bright spots. So what are we left with?

A great many gauzy shots of Walker’s Point, the family compound on the Maine seacoast; the aging WASP paterfamilias, nicknamed “Gampy” by his grandkids, steering his golf cart past manicured lawns while calling out to his little dog scampering alongside, or manning the helm of Fidelity IV, a burly Secret Service agent standing behind him, and throttling up his cigarette boat as it flies out of the harbor.

Dutifully, sometimes ploddingly, 41 treads a lot of the biographical ground that has been amply covered elsewhere—the privileged wealth of his Greenwich, Conn., childhood during the Great Depression, his near-death experience as a 20-year-old Navy pilot during World War II, his stellar baseball career at Yale (where, by his own account, he was an indifferent scholar), the Texas oilman phase, and so on and so forth.

It features some interesting home movies starring his mother, Dorothy, and father, Prescott, an investment banker turned senator from Connecticut. Baby George appears briefly toddling in the backyard of the 1920s. While giving full analysis to Bush’s role as head of the bird-banding club at Andover and his strong preference for dogs over cats, the film breezes through his many political campaigns in his adopted home state of Texas, not even mentioning his second failed try for the Senate in 1970, against Lloyd Bentsen. It offers a rosily revisionist view of his career as a fiercely partisan Richard Nixon defender during the Watergate scandal. After the revelation of the “smoking gun” tape, Bush, the besieged president’s handpicked chairman of the Republican National Committee, was among many in his party who concluded that Nixon had to go.

Bush’s eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president get similarly short shrift. Bush’s observation that Reagan was a brilliant communicator but “not interested in the details of issues”—as his vice president was—could use some explanation in light of Bush’s continued insistence that he was “out of the loop” when he attended White House meetings at which Reagan decided to sell weapons to our sworn enemy Iran and use the proceeds to illegally fund the Nicaraguan contras. There’s zero mention, of course, of the scandal that nearly destroyed Reagan’s presidency and haunted Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Much of the movie is graced by a sappily insistent score, which struck me as a mix of Forrest Gump (the music that accompanied the whimsically airborne feather) and Jaws (the happy beach scenes, not the shark attacks). Meanwhile, there are so many slow, sweeping pans of the Bush family cottage’s muted green interior that at times I thought I was watching a Century 21 video.