HBO // 2012 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 15th, 2012
His family. His triumphs. His legacy.
The HBO documentary 41 was supposed to be something special. Director Jeffrey Roth and his team were given complete access to former President George H.W. Bush; they would have the opportunity to create an unfiltered look at an often-overlooked American leader. The "In Their Own Words" approach to documentary filmmaking may necessarily lack objectivity, but the measure of intimacy it provides can easily compensate for that. Unfortunately, the approach proves rather disastrous to 41, as the senior Bush seems to have little interest in having an in-depth discussion about his remarkable political career.
At least half of 41's running time finds Bush waxing eloquent about his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, which he has faithfully visited every year since childhood. It's a lovely place, to be sure, and it's easy to see why Bush would feel so much affection for it. However, when a documentary about the life of a president begins to feel like it ought to be airing on the Home and Garden Channel, you know you're in trouble. Countless fascinating subjects go completely unexplored, as Bush seemingly not only had the opportunity to tell his story in his own words but was given free reign in terms of subject matter.
Bush is undoubtedly our most enigmatic and reserved living president, a man who doesn't feel it's his place to weigh in on every national debate that arises. I was kind of excited about the prospect of hearing the man open up on the various directions the country has taken in the wake of his presidency. Alas, there's precious little insight to be found in 41: Bush admits to being deeply hurt when the country voted him out of office (though he doesn't speculate on why he lost), gives credit to "whoever came after me" for finishing some of the things he had been working on (though he doesn't offer any specifics) and says that he was a proud father when George W. was elected (though he doesn't actually offer any thoughts on his son's presidency). Time and time again, Bush holds back on the most interesting subjects, and the interviewer has little interest in pressing him on anything. An exception: a scene in which the interviewer says, "Can you tell me more about your work with the CIA?" "No," Bush replies brusquely, "Ssshhhh."
The truly disappointing thing about 41 is that when it doesn't feel like a tour of Bush's residence, it feels like the former president has been asked to recite passages from his Wikipedia page. There's so little here that couldn't have been said with just as much authority by Joe Q. Historian, as Bush seems hesitant to reveal anything truly personal. In fact, there's only one moment in the entire film in which Bush actually seems to drop his guard. When asked what he thinks of Ross Perot, Bush snaps, "I think he cost me the election and I don't like him. That's all I have to say."
The DVD transfer is perfectly adequate, offering strong detail during the interview sequences along with a host of archival footage of varying quality. Audio is clean and clear throughout, though the overly-sentimental score is perhaps a bit more prominent than it needs to be. There are no extras whatsoever included on the disc.
What the elder Bush really deserves -- for that matter, what every president deserves -- is the sort of treatment PBS gave him a few years ago: an American Experience documentary that provides a comprehensive look at the man's life via archival footage and the testimonies of those around him. That documentary told the story of a complex man who occasionally got his hands dirty but generally worked hard to fulfill his role with dignity; this one simply features the President rattling off well-known facts about his life. A proper documentary about the entirety of Bush's life would tell us something about the man who spent the better part of a decade living in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, about the striking contrasts in foreign policy between Bush and his son and about the man who demonstrated extraordinary bipartisanship by teaming up with Bill Clinton to raise money in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There's so much depth to this fascinating man, but 41 does a poor job of accentuating his strengths and has no interest whatsoever in exploring his flaws. It's a useless puff piece that will offers little of interest to both Bush's supporters and detractors.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated