By Alan Scherstuhl
By Mark Holcombe
By Scott Foundas
By Nick Pinkerton
By Michael Atkinson
By Scott Foundas
By Keith Phipps
By Alan Scherstuhl
If September 11 hadn't happened, and the current administration hadn't convinced a majority of Americans that Saddam Hussein was somehow culpable, Alexandra Pelosi's documentary about press life on the George W. campaign trail might have seemed a mildly amusing take on the idiotic artificiality of American politics and media. But those things did happen, and as a result Journeys with George is profoundly depressing. Watching "objective" journalists--including our bratty heroine/filmmaker--fall over themselves to get G.W.'s autograph, I realized that covering Big Politics is a bit like editing Vanity Fair: If you want access to the celebrity, you play nice. Which may help to explain why the "liberal" Strib front-paged a huge photo of the Northern Lights on the day after millions marched against a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Alexandra Pelosi, the camcorder wielder, is the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Speaker of the U.S. House; she understands exactly what's going on in her frame. However, as a network news producer--the job that got her on the bus, plane, and train with George--she needs (or wants) the access of a privileged pet. So Pelosi pretends to be, in the words of one fellow journalist, "fucking-around-wacky-girl," and achieves a creepily flirtatious, ruthlessly playful relationship with the celebrity in question. It's an effective strategy: The amount of G.W. wit onscreen is truly startling. But you begin to wonder who's playing whom. I don't think George W. would dislike this film. And maybe he should, a little.
Pelosi joins the Bush caravan before the New Hampshire primary, just in time to cover George W. walking from his plane in subzero Iowa. Pelosi films such events from a few steps back, and she finds absurdity in abundance: frenzied media huddled around the candidate on an otherwise deserted, snowy airfield; a rare minority supporter hustled away from the candidate's presence for pointing too persistently. ("What have I done?" he cries to the bodyguards. Uh...show up, perhaps?) The camcorder's perspective has everything to do with Bush's distance from the press. Initially he travels apart from them, unlike his competition, media favorite John McCain. Then Bush loses New Hampshire to McCain. Then Bush gets on the press plane.
You can chart the candidate's increasing ease at being "full-access George" through his interactions with Pelosi's casual camera. Initially he sticks his eye or thumb over the lens, as if he wanted to push it away or dominate it. "Stop filming me," he gripes to Pelosi. "You're like a head cold." Soon enough, though, he begins to tease the camera. And the camera loves that, so he moves in close again, this time not as a combatant, but a swain. "You're the orange of my eye," he quips to Pelosi, handing her a piece of fruit with her name written on it. He takes her on a tour of his body under the guise of explaining Texas style. (Nice butt, George.) He calls her "baby." He tells her he'll kiss her if she votes for him. Then he kisses her (chastely, on the cheek).
Part of this behavior is routine in the press entourage "bubble": Pelosi is also flirting with a reporter from Newsweek, T. Trent Gegax--who had a lot more hair as a City Pages intern in the early '90s, but no less easy charm. Still, when George W. ribs Pelosi about holding hands with "the Newsweek guy," it comes off as vicarious romancing. Or maybe George only knows one way to interact with a woman. In any case, Pelosi juxtaposes scenes of her Trent and George dalliances so that they comment on each other: The news that Trent has a girlfriend and is only playing sets up George's eventual desertion. George gets what he wants from her: no tough questions that would require less-than-droll answers--about policies, for example. (At one point, Pelosi queries the then-governor of Texas on the death penalty and earns exile; she squirms back into his embrace because, she implies, she'll lose her job if he won't answer her questions. Subsequent concerns include what kind of tree he most feels like. "A bush!" George retorts gleefully. "Come on!")
To be fair, Bush banters with the male press just as successfully, sprinkling his conversations with dis and kno'm-sayin'? All the reporters seem to know that the whole campaign is a staged event that is only news when George flubs up. But they can't stop pretending, can't stop flirting with and deceiving the pawns who are their audience: the American public. Or won't stop. "We were writing about trivial stuff because [Bush] charmed the pants off us," notes Pelosi's buddy Richard Wolffe, a foreign reporter. Earlier he says he's surprised how many Americans show up at 2:30 a.m. in New Hampshire--and how little they know about politics. "You say, 'What do you like about George W.?' and they go, 'Uh...I just like him.'"
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