Bush's Brain is based on the book of the same name by Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News bureau chief in Austin and TV correspondent James C. Moore, both of whom are extensively interviewed in the film. Both long-time Texan journalists, they've been covering Bush and Rove for years - the wry Slater is especially engaging and sharp-witted, as he proved before in the documentary Journeys with George - and it's in the Texas-based sections of the film that it's most successful.
A nerdy political consultant with an acid tongue, a zealot's conviction and a long memory for enemies and slights, Rove seems to have played dirty ever since his years in the College Republicans during the 1970s. This is good for the film because it provides a laundry list of slighted adversaries willing to hold forth on the man.
The evidence piles up fast: a 1986 election in which Rove likely faked a wiretapping of his own office, creating a scandal that turned things in his candidate's favor, partisan-motivated FBI investigations of Rove's rivals, and the "whisper campaign" of scurrilous rumors against Ann Richards, who Bush defeated in the 1994 governor's race. (This last was a tactic used again pretty successfully by Rove in the 2000 South Carolina primary that featured rumors of John McCain having an illegitimate black child.) Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of rock-solid proof to go around, and once the film tries to draw conclusions about Rove after he rode Bush's coattails to Washington, it founders.
There's no end of people in Bush's Brain willing to talk about how certain things seemed to have Rove's handiwork (or what's called in Washington, "The mark of Rove"), but should it be any surprise that this pudgy little Machiavellian didn't leave a whole lot of evidence behind? The film contains connections and coincidences aplenty, but its central thesis, that Rove is the brains behind the president, is already very widely known. The lack of a smoking gun seems to force the filmmakers - who have already managed to take a large pile of juicy political gossip and turn it into a dull, meandering mess - to overreach.
As a case in point, the filmmakers, in an unusually magnanimous gesture, provide excerpts of a lengthy fax that Rove sent the authors refuting most of their accusations (not surprisingly, Rove had obtained a copy of the book before it was even published). However, the fair-handedness of including Rove's own words is torpedoed by the awful decision to have them read in a whiny, vaguely evil voiceover. The directors' lack of art is most apparent, though, during a pointless sidebar on a Marine who died in Iraq. If the film had managed to prove beforehand that Rove had masterminded the war to solidify Bush's stature, then it would have made for a meaningful coda; as it stands, however, the moment is just a shameless tug at the heartstrings.
If this is all Rove's enemies could muster, he's got nothing to fear.
Reviewed at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. The DVD of the film includes about 20 minutes of extra interviews.
Run time: 80 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 13th March 2004
Distributed by: Tartan Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Fresh: 30 Rotten: 18
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Screenwriter: James C. Moore