George H.W. Bush is a nice guy.
That fact comes across clearly in "41" (9 tonight HBO), a documentary that features the former president at 87 (his 88th birthday was two days ago) talking about his life and career.
Unfortunately 'nice' doesn't make for a compelling hour and 40 minutes of TV. Indeed, it could lull you to sleep.
Directed by Jeffrey Roth, the film is decidedly and purposely non-political; it features Bush sitting before the camera talking, interspersed with family and file footage and photos illustrating the moments in his personal history.
The story begins with Bush's childhood, one he describes more than once as privileged. Indeed, while others were broken by the Depression, the Bush family was able to send young George to private school. With the clarity and equanimity of someone at peace with his past and himself, Bush describes himself as a mediocre student at Yale (albeit a great baseball player); shares his stint and near-death as a Navy pilot; relays his courtship of Barbara Pierce (apparently her mom didn't like him).
The film hinges on Bush's storytelling, which is part of the problem. He's not much of a storyteller or at least not much of an expressive one. Each fact is told with about the same level of emotion; even when he describes the death of his adorable baby daughter from leukemia there's nothing extra in his voice. It was a long time ago, sure, but it's an intimate and profound moment. About the only time you can hear a little edge in his voice is when Ross Perot is mentioned. Bush really doesn't like him. Yet even there he choses to not say much if he can't say anything nice.
There are some lovely scenes of his life now in Kennebunkport, Maine and some poignancy at seeing Bush reluctantly aging. He has Parkinson's in his knees which makes walking difficult and his boat his only athletic refuge. The man still wants to tandem sky dive on his 90th birthday.
Yet, this would have been a more interesting, and dare I say, worthwhile work if it had dwelled in the political. The man was a president, for goodness sakes. He made an imprint on this nation far beyond being nice. It would be nice if that was documented here.