NEW YORK Tourism officials in Maine will be delighted when they see HBOs new documentary on President George H.W. Bush.
The leisurely paced film has so many pictures of waves splashing over the rocks at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport that its tempting to book a vacation nearby. The beauty of Walker Point and its rejuvenating qualities for Bush since he was a boy is key to understanding him, and key to filmmaker Jeffrey Roths goals as a result.
It sort of became like another character because of his love for the place and his family, and his love for his boat, Roth said.
Granted unusual access to the former president, Roth set out to make 41 (the title a reference to Bush as the nations 41st president; his son was 43) a personal rather than political film. It debuts Thursday, two days after Bushs 88th birthday.
Roth doesnt pretend that Bushs four years as president (1989 to 1993) werent the most important. But he finds rich stories in the other 84. Remarkably, the film contains footage of Bushs rescue when his plane was shot down in World War II. Bush also talks about his daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953. Both were more formative life events than any political act.
Bush says in the film that the presidency was the epitome of my life but not my whole life.
Before becoming president, he was an oil executive, congressman, head of the Republican National Committee, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, liaison to China and vice president to Ronald Reagan.
Roth gets an insightful moment when he asks Bush about when the Berlin Wall came down during his presidency. Bush responds by mentioning critics who said he should have gone to the Wall to celebrate with demonstrators, and explains how the Russians might have considered that unnecessarily provocative. The savvy diplomats reaction showed he didnt have an all-consuming need for attention.
He was well aware of criticism, though. Bush shares with many Republicans an aversion to the press, saying in the film that most reporters were against him when he lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton.
So it was mildly surprising that he talked at all for 41. Bush doesnt grant many interviews and doesnt want to talk about politics, said film executive Jerry Weintraub, a family friend who helped shepherd 41 and is doing many of the interviews to support it.
Hes not a braggadocio kind of guy, Weintraub said. He doesnt want to sit around and talk about how wonderful he is. He never did. Thats one of the things that made him so wonderful.
Bush was a fan of Roths previous film about astronauts, The Wonder of It All, and hosted viewing parties in both his presidential library in Texas and in Kennebunkport. That enabled him to grow comfortable with Roth, the former president said in an email interview.
I could tell he was a decent guy, in addition to being a very talented filmmaker, Bush said.
Roth proposed, to the former presidents chief of staff, doing a film about Bushs life. She warned him it probably wouldnt happen. Bush hasnt written a memoir and isnt now. He put out a book of letters, cooperated with his daughter Dorothys book in 2006 and is cooperating on a biography that Jon Meacham is writing, but thats it.
Somewhat to Roths surprise, Bush said yes.
Bush said he never would have sat for the filmmakers interviews while his son was in office, because the last thing I wanted to do during those eight years was complicate the life of the president. Silence on that issue essentially continued. Bush talked about his pride in his sons achievement but nothing about his presidency.
There really wasnt any conscious decision about timing, he said. But its a good thing we did it when we did because Im tired of talking about myself now.
That attitude Bush even talked about violating my dear mothers rule about not talking about yourself shaped the film. Roth hoped for more interview time, but had to make do with what he had. Yet he recognized it was a special opportunity to make a film in Bushs own voice. He even interviewed former President Clinton about his predecessor but decided not to use anybody else talking about Bush.
He just wants to be a man whos enjoying the rest of his life, Roth said. He doesnt really care too much about how history remembers him and that tends to reflect how hes not out there all that much.
Once Bush agreed to participate, he encouraged Weintraubs participation because he didnt want to do it and have it put in a drawer, Weintraub said.
Jerry was instrumental in what the showbiz types call the post or post-production phase either convincing or blackmailing the good people at HBO into taking on the project, Bush said.
Bush comes across as a gentleman in the film, an old school politician who believes in service and in getting things done as opposed to getting into mortal combat. One of the most fascinating passages, however, came when Roth asked him about his 1992 election opponent Ross Perot.
Cant talk about him, Bush said, his voice suddenly frosty. Cost me the election and I dont like him. Other than that, I have nothing to say.
Roth began filming in 2009, with his final shots coming when President Obama awarded Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. You can see the progression of age. Bush is seen walking around Walkers Point early, then he needs a cane and, finally, he is seen in a wheelchair as Parkinsons Disease weakens his legs.
Movingly, 41 ends in Kennebunkport.
This is our anchor to the windward, the former president says. This is where our memories are. This is where Ive been coming all my life and will remain to our last days.