Alexandra Pelosi’s casually astonishing “Journeys With George” is that rare breed of documentary that could forever alter public perceptions of its high-profile subject. It’s difficult to predict what future historians will make of Pelosi’s mini-DV “home movie” (her own description) about George W. Bush’s eventful 2000 campaign for the U.S. presidency. But it’s even more difficult to see how any future biographer — or, more important, any contemporary pundit — will be able to write anything truly informed about the 43rd chief of state without taking a close look at Pelosi’s revealing portrait. Although technically ragged and in desperate need of soundtrack tweaking, “George” could journey far beyond the fest circuit and launch a profitable theatrical campaign before reaching cable and homevid precincts.
Already generating interest in newsweeklies and op-ed columns, pic is all the more fascinating in the wake of President Bush’s massive post-9/11 spike in popularity and approval ratings. “George” recalls a time not so long ago when the untested son of President No. 41 was considered even by some Republicans to be an intellectual lightweight sorely lacking in presidential gravitas. Docu strongly suggests that Bush’s image as a callow boob was only partially justified and likely was much more apparent than real.
Pic begins more or less as a harmless pastime by Pelosi, shot during downtime from her duties as a producer for NBC News. At first, she’s simply one of the faceless dozens among the print and TV journalists on a shaky Access Air plane — which, Pelosi pointedly notes, is usually used to transport convicts. (A much nicer aircraft is provided once Bush actually nails the Republican nomination.) But a funny thing happens along the campaign trail: The more she aims her mini-DV camera at Bush between stump speeches and photo ops, the more the candidate opens up while noticing, and gradually befriending, Pelosi.
To be sure, the relationship has its ups and downs. “Stop filming!” Bush barks in mock-annoyance early in pic. “You’re like a head cold!” Much later, Bush turns noticeably frosty after Pelosi asks what he deems an improper question (about the number of executions in Texas) during a routine press conference.
More often, however, auds have a golden opportunity to witness the “unplugged,” after-hours George W. Bush at his most congenial. “George” offers a portrait of a gregariously charming and self-mocking fellow who’s perfectly at ease in his own skin, and who’s no less slick and savvy a politician for being willing to make himself the butt of jokes. Indeed, at one point, he even goes on the press plane loudspeaker to mock his own verbal gaffes at the last campaign stop.
Even though he drinks nothing harder than nonalcoholic beer — which he carefully reveals to the camera on more than one occasion — Bush cheerfully makes quite a few allusions to his own much-rumored, near-legendary past as party-hearty hellraiser. When Pelosi and other sleepy journalists complain about noisy, hard-drinking passengers in front of the plane, Bush steps in to defend those wild and crazy guys and gals “who only wanted to have a good solid margarita and get hopping at 45,000 miles” over Nebraska.
“These are my people,” Bush quips. “It takes an animal to know an animal.”
Some viewers will insist on reading something like a flirty spark between Pelosi and Bush in some scenes. Whether it’s there or not, there’s something undeniably sweet about Bush’s advice to the producer in regard to her budding romance with a Newsweek correspondent: “I predict your relationship with Newsweek man will go beyond handholding.”
Only rarely does something like anger or cynicism seep through the Bush facade of affability. The mask slips a bit when he notes how reporters are noting his hectic campaign pace, “even though the collective wisdom is that I wasn’t working hard enough to become president.”
Later, someone leaks the result of a poll Pelosi takes among her colleagues on the Bush press plane — they indicate Al Gore more likely will win the election — and other the reporters, fearing an angry Bush will become less accessible, begin to shun the producer.
She remains a pariah until, quite unexpectedly, Bush conspicuously draws her aside for a chummy chat. Pelosi quotes him as saying: “When they see me talking to you, they’re gonna act like they’re your friends again. But these people aren’t your friends. They can say what they want about me, but at least I know who I am and who my friends are.”
One could argue — and, judging from her own running commentary, Pelosi might agree — that the filmmaker may have been compromised by a Bush charm offensive. It should be noted, however, that despite her insistent claims of impartiality, Pelosi is a lifelong Democrat whose mother, California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, currently is House minority whip. Her largely sympathetic depiction of Bush indicates that there may be a lot more to Bush’s powers of persuasion than his rivals and enemies are willing to acknowledge.
On the other hand, “George” also reveals a group-think mentality (not unlike the Stockholm syndrome) that prevails among reporters “inside the bubble” of a campaign trail for long periods. Two Texas newspaper reporters, R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle and Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News, provide hilariously droll comments about campaigning in general and “Journeys With George,” in particular.
But even when Slater is grilled by colleagues about an unprinted Bush interview after someone leaks news of Bush’s long-ago D.U.I. arrest, he and Ratcliffe appear more affectionately indulgent than skeptically critical while discussing the candidate (who, at the time, is governor of their home state).
Richard Wolffe, a bemused Brit from the Financial Times, opines that “Bush is much smarter than people give him credit for — even though he’s a pretty bad public speaker.” Wolffe’s smiles fades only slightly when he seriously considers that, even though he’s covering an election to decide “the most powerful man in the world,” he and his colleagues spend most of their time covering “really stupid things in really stupid places with really stupid people.”
“Journeys With George” vividly details the unglamorous side of being one of the “boys on the bus” while covering a U.S. presidential election. (Pelosi and her colleagues work ungodly hours, endure long swaths of in-flight tedium, and dine almost exclusively on turkey sandwiches.) Just as important, pic offers insights into campaign strategies and inner workings.
At first, Bush’s handlers try to keep the candidate inaccessible to the press pack. But after he loses a few primaries to rival John McCain — whose half-hearted speech in support of Bush is screamingly albeit unintentionally funny — the candidate suddenly becomes accessible, unplugged — and indefatigably charming.
It’s been reported some of President Bush’s current handlers are worried that “Journeys With George” will make Dubya look somehow “less presidential.” Actually, the only thing they have to complain about is the timing of the pic’s release: Had it appeared prior to the 2000 election, there likely would not have been any disputes over the Florida vote count, because Bush’s electoral victory would have been all the more resounding.