In “The Prosecution of George W. Bush,” noted litigator Vincent Bugliosi aims to provide a framework by which the former president can be tried for murder for taking the U.S. to war with Iraq under false pretenses. Touching on issues raised in such films as “Why We Fight” and “No End in Sight,” the case is often well made and the pleas impassioned, but the docu presents little new evidence. One can’t help thinking that, while it would be apt to consider capital punishment for such a crime, Bugliosi is late to the hanging. Kicking off a limited run Oct. 12, the docu will preach to the ancillary choir.
Bugliosi is perhaps best known as the man who put Charles Manson in jail and co-wrote a book about the experience, “Helter Skelter,” which became a bestseller. Early in the film, the frequent author says he had never met such resistance in trying to publish and promote a book as he did with the 2008 volume on which this pic is based, and while background info helps establish Bugliosi’s bona fides, it also gives the doc the whiff of a vanity project — a feeling echoed near the end, when Bugliosi is surprised that his appearance before the House judiciary committee to deliver his evidence doesn’t immediately spur Washington to action.
That said, as presented, ostensibly to a gallery of onlookers at the UCLA School of Law, and accompanied by archival information, photos and clips, the case is compelling: that Bush duped the U.S. into attacking an Iraq his own intelligence said was not an imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist strike, and that the administration intentionally removed that information from the report it submitted to Congress to support going to war a few days later.
While the president didn’t personally kill anyone, neither, Bugliosi notes, did Manson, the implication being that one man led murderous disciples and the other sent troops to war, with the predictable results in both instances being many left dead.
Early on, noted attorney and liberal commentator Alan Dershowitz sounds a voice in opposition to criminalizing policy differences after a president has left office. But Bugliosi brushes aside this well-considered argument and effectively paints Bush and his minions, including “co-conspirator” Vice President Dick Cheney, as callous men quick to send others to fight the battles they themselves ran from when they were of draft age.
Testimony includes excerpted quotes from top CIA execs, and clips from Gen. Wesley Clark, former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, families who lost sons to the war — and U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix. Blix is seen maintaining Saddam Hussein’s full cooperation with no-notice checks days before Bush kicks the inspectors out of Iraq and, with an unaccountably mute (and unidentified in the doc) U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan by his side at a photo op, improbably says that Hussein won’t allow weapons inspectors into the country.
Yet the picture the docu presents of Bush feels incomplete. Here, he is simply a smirking, oft-vacationing cad who pronounces the word nuclear as “nucular,” willingly allows Osama bin Laden to escape, and jokes about the fact that he hasn’t been able to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There is no mention of his full level of disengagement as commander in chief — for instance, the oft-repeated assertion by insiders that he never read any reports presented to him, including those Bugliosi shows had been altered. While the nature of “Prosecution” doesn’t allow for defense arguments, it’s not hard to imagine such full disclosure prompting Bush’s lawyers to use this information to distance him from the charges in much the same manner as Ronald Reagan successfully fled culpability in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Bugliosi notes there is no need to show motive to prove his case against Bush in court, but clearly understands that this leaves a hole in the docu. In fact, when the pic broadens its investigation to include such ramifications of the war as the lucrative no-bid contracts in Iraq handed to Halliburton, where Cheney had been CEO, its case gets stronger. While viewers looking for a deeper examination of the people who might have been pulling Bush’s strings will be disappointed, the film’s final challenge to U.S. citizens is nevertheless thought-provoking.
Tech credits are appropriate, though many of the images meant to stir emotions are gruesome. The swelling chords over Bugliosi’s closing arguments are unnecessary at best, risible at worst.