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41 Documentary Review Essay

The former president, who just turned 88, tells his story with humor and remarkable recall; it’s not until well into the film that an off-camera interviewer can be heard asking questions like, “Why did you leave your extremely successful business to run for public office?”

Flattery brings out the best in Mr. Bush, who doesn’t like the word “I” and explains that his mother told him, “Nobody likes a braggadocio.” This biography — filled with baby pictures, dogs, home movies, mowed lawns, boats, Andover and Yale graduation portraits, a Skull and Bones membership list and even footage of Mr. Bush as a Navy pilot being rescued after his plane was shot down in 1944 — is not complete.

The camera lingers with a decorator’s enthusiasm over a Kennebunkport bedroom, painted robin’s-egg blue from floor to rafter. There is no mention of the Willie Horton attack spots or the poor choice of Dan Quayle as vice president, but that doesn’t mean “41” isn’t revealing.

Formal in coat and tie, Mr. Bush recalls the time he and his brother borrowed the motorboat of their grandfather, George Herbert Walker, the patriarch who built the Maine family estate now known as Walker’s Point. The two boys drove into the dock too fast, upsetting lobster fishermen and their pots. Two irate lobstermen came to the house, asking to speak to Mr. Walker. He sent them away, “Downton Abbey” style.

“ ‘I’m at lunch; tell them to come back,’ ” Mr. Bush recalls his grandfather saying. When he was finished, Walker made his grandsons apologize in person. “It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten,” Mr. Bush says. He sees it as a lesson in humility and good manners; outsiders are more likely to feel instead the humiliation of lobstermen forced to wait while the grandee goes on with his meal.

Mr. Bush has whimsical charm and an Old World courtliness, and he is quite funny about his youth, saying that as a teenager he wasn’t “forward leaning” with girls but that he remembers “admiring the figures,” particularly one young woman who wore a “rubber bathing suit,” adding, “I’ll never forget it; it was just to die for.”

He doesn’t say he was a catch, but the early photographs do. In almost every shot he looks off into the distance, but his bride, Barbara, gazes up at him, as if dazzled by her own amazing luck.

Mr. Bush refers to his second-born son as “Governor Jeb” and doesn’t discuss the eldest until the very end. When he mentions George W. Bush, he speaks as a loving father, not as a predecessor whose example was praised but not followed.

He is generous about Reagan and even Richard M. Nixon and touchingly open about his young daughter Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953. He is characteristically modest about his war record.

But even old age doesn’t quite blunt the competitive spirit that drove him into politics and still compels him to drive a speedboat and sky-dive. (He plans another drop at 90.) He is generous with credit, but not with his golf cart. (A sign on it says “Property of #41: Hands Off!”)

He doesn’t have an unkind word for anyone, really, except Ross Perot. “No, can’t talk about him,” he says with sudden brusqueness when asked about the Texas businessman who ran as a third-party candidate in 1992. “I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him. Other than that, I have nothing to say.”

The former president has lots to say about more pleasant memories, and “41” gives him plenty of time and a beautiful oceanside setting to share them.

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Friendly in every sense of the word, HBO’s documentary “41” bills itself as an intimate look back at the life of George Herbert Walker Bush, who, in case you’ve spaced it, was U.S. president from 1989 to 1993. The film was produced by former United Artists CEO Jerry Weintraub (a Bush family friend) and directed by Jeffrey Roth with Bush’s full cooperation.

Lots and lots of cooperation — 17 months of it, in fact. Here we see the kind of journalistic access granted by a source (Bush) with not much else to do and a fundamental belief in cheery hospitality. The result is a gentle, respectful and thorough biography that is 100 minutes of no news and no fresh insights.

Dull, you mean?

Yes, that, too. But there’s also something fleetingly pleasurable in it. Without daring to cue the Bobby McFerrin song that caught on during the former president’s winning ’88 campaign and eventually became a symbol of his blissful disconnect from politics as usual (and middle-American struggles), “41” is drenched in a sense of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

When do you suppose was the last time anyone made a 100-
minute movie that was about nothing more than having a nice, long, prosperous life? Surely when HBO next rolls out another of its sly political biopic dramas that conservatives find too leftwardly lopsided (a la “Game Change”), the network can point back to “41” as a corrective bit of balance. In my business, we call this a beat-sweetener.

The octogenarian Bush, who is the film’s lone interview subject, happily shuttles Roth and his crew around his Kennebunkport, Maine, compound in his golf cart. He gives boat rides. He points out the sentimental significance of the fishing lures, rods and reels lovingly organized in the boathouse. He talks at length about the origins of the family paradise here on rocky Walker’s Point, where he has summered every year since forever. He describes the frightful damage suffered when hurricanes and Nor’easters have come, and the waves washed out the estate. Every time the main house flooded, Bush and his wife, the stalwart Bar, decided to restore the house as it were, rather than move the compound to a safer spot back from the sea. The metaphor is plain.

Bush sat for several hours of interviews between 2009 and 2011 as Roth worked on the film, and although there is a noticeable decline in his mobility during that period, his memories are sharp. His heroic crash-landing in the Pacific as a 20-year-old naval aviator is vividly retold. The loss of a 3-year-old daughter, Robin, to leukemia, is reflected upon and clearly still mourned.

But it’s the résumé that takes up the bulk of “41’s” time, starting with Phillips Andover, then Yale, then the West Texas oil fields, then Congress. President Nixon appointed Bush as U.N. ambassador; then Bush became Republican National Committee chairman and had the unsavory job of urging Nixon to resign for the good of the GOP. Then what? China ambassador, then CIA director, or maybe I have that the other way around — Roth does absolutely nothing to pick up the pace or make this a memorable epic.

Soon enough, the 1980 presidential campaign season arrives and, by his own admission, George Bush runs because, well, why not? It’s refreshing to see someone so in tune with his own entitlement. He winds up becoming Ronald Reagan’s vice president for eight years, then president, just whistling a happy tune.

In case you hadn’t noticed, WASPs are an endangered species — at least, WASPs as we classically knew them. The Bushes are a marvelous specimen, but the kind manners of “41” start to wear thin. Surely a life in politics was not this free of conflict or torment; the only ire Bush seems to retain is directed at Ross Perot, the independent rogue whose attention-grabbing bid for president derailed Bush’s ’92 reelection campaign.

After that, it’s the frequent skydiving photo ops — another happy metaphor — and days filled with grandchildren and dogs. Little is expressed, other than fatherly pride, on the subject of son George’s two-term presidency. In that regard, “41” reminds me of those serious talks we all mean to have with our aging parents and grandparents, but darned if we don’t wind up just paging through old scrapbooks all afternoon.

41

(100 minutes) premieres Thursday
at 9 p.m. on HBO.