Bush's Brain Review
Trends come and go within the film world, with an idea or genre seemingly coming out of nowhere to dominate the field only to fade away a year or two down the line. There is talk that 2004 will go down as the year of transgressive film - pedophilia in The Woodsman, Palindromes and even Nicole Kidman's next flick contributes to that argument - but I disagree. 2004 is the year of the political documentary. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 got the ball rolling but the flood gates are open good and wide now with films directly responding to Moore's, films about John Kerry and films about political manipulation of the media all occupying prime territory. Add Bush's Brain to the list and just go ahead and move it right on up close to the top.
Based on the book of the same name Bush's Brain is as far from the personality and agenda driven style of Michael Moore as is humanly possible rolling out as a standard "talking head" investigative report with expert after expert dropping in to offer their opinions and recollections on the topic at hand. Bush's Brain isn't going to win a whole lot of style points with a methodology that makes 60 Minutes look exciting by comparison but it stands as mighty compelling viewing thanks solely to the topic of conversation: Karl Rove.
Who is Karl Rove, you ask? Well now, that's entirely the point. Karl Rove is very likely the most powerful man on the planet that hardly anybody outside of a small, select circle has ever heard of or paid much attention to. Rove is a paid political consultant based out of Austin, Texas who once held a position on George Bush Sr's staff and is now George W's most trusted advisor having groomed and guided him through every stage of his career since Bush's campaign for Governor of Texas. Rove is so influential that USA Today has referred to him as a co-President, a somewhat troubling statement when you consider that he has never once held any publicly elected office.
Bush's Brain aims to lay bare the man hidden in the shadows, the man who appears to have more say in Bush's pubic profile, strategy and policy decisions than any other. They do this the good old fashioned way, by talking to people from all phases of his professional life dating right back to his college days. Friends, colleagues, journalists, opponents, enemies, casualties struck down and left behind ... they're all here. The film makers even tried to land an interview with the man himself, but were declined via a three word hand written note.
The picture that quickly emerges is of a tenacious, somewhat amoral man who is willing to do absolutely anything to acheive his political aims. Even the people who admire Rove obviously prefer to do so at a distance and with a little bit of fear. Was Rove behind the recent outing of an active CIA agent? Could've been. Did he once bug his own office to cast aspersions on a political rival? Might have. Does he have unusual influence over a particular FBI agent who does an unusual amount of dirty work against Rove opponents? Certainly seems to. Was Rove behind the whisper campaign that gave Bush the presidential nomination over John McCain? It certainly fits his known M.O.
The talk about - and against - Rove is largely anecdotal but as it progresses the same themes come up so many times that even a skeptic has to admit that an awful lot of fortunate 'coincidences' seem to follow this man around. What we do know is that it was this feared and driven man who pulled George W. Bush off of the Texas Governor's campaign trail for a week while he was in a shambles and returned him as a focused, organized man who ultimately swept his way to power. We know he was instrumental in shaping Bush's response to 9/11 and the current war in Iraq and as a result we have to conclude that this is a man that we simply do not know enough about. How does a man rise to the point of such extreme influence without ever once having to face the electorate?
Bush's Brain raises a lot more questions than it answers - in fact you could say fairly honestly that it answers none at all - but these are questions that desperately need asking. Is it one sided? Yes, absolutely. The film makers have a point that they're trying to make, as any film maker does, but they've done a good job of being as balanced as they can be with the range of information available to them. After refusing to speak with them on his own behalf Rove is hardly in a position to cry bias, and it is worth noting that a very healthy percentage of the interview subjects are themselves Republican and that the DVD devotes an entire bonus feature to extended interviews with Republican politicians discussing their take on the man. Whatever this film may be partisan it is not, which is a refreshing change coming in the midst of a stream of election ads thinly disguised as films.
Bush's Brain is the first release from the American branch of the UKs Tartan Films and if this is any indicator of the quality of what we can expect from them, we're in for a good ride. Challenging, topical, intelligent stuff.