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HBO's 41 gives George H.W. Bush his say (not that he says all that much)

Old man and the sea: George H.W. Bush at Kennebunkport. HBO photo

HBO's 41, a Hallmark card to George H.W. Bush in commemoration of his 88th birthday, is the network's first such "In His Own Words" look at a right-of-center public figure.

That doesn't make it right. But it does give HBO the standard "unprecedented access" to a lot of toasty family pictures and home movies while airbrushing or leaving out all together anything the subject doesn't choose to address.

Ted Kennedy, JFK and Gloria Steinem got the same Tickle Me Elmo treatment in their HBO documentaries. It's an approach in which other witnesses to history are left out of the picture. And maybe it's only fair that HBO go against the grain of its usually left-of-center regimen to give "Poppy" the ol' puffball treatment.

"I am so glad to be a friend of George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush," 41's executive producer, Jerry Weintraub, says in HBO publicity materials. "And so proud that our friendship includes this wonderful film about two wonderful people."

So hard-hitting it's not. Weighing in at 1 hour, 40 minutes and premiering at 8 p.m. central on Thursday, June 14th (two days after Bush turned 88), 41 gets a rise out of its subject only after an off-camera interviewer dares to ask, "Can you talk a bit about Ross Perot?"

"No. Can't talk about him," Bush snaps back. "I think he cost me the (1992) election and I don't like him. Other than that, I have nothing to say."

The entire film goes without any mention at all of what it was like to run against Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 campaign; why he chose Dan Quayle as his running mate in the 1988 presidential campaign; the mess he found himself in over Iran/Contra; or even his past and present relationship with oldest son George W. He was, however, "proud" to see him elected president.

Instead the film devotes at least one-third of its running time to the current-day H.W.'s longstanding love affair with the Kennebunkport home built by his grandfather in 1902.

Some of this is revealing, even endearing. Once a formidable athlete, Bush is no longer able to participate in the games he once played. But he can still get around in his speed boat. Or as he puts it, "Boats, I'm still in the game."

We also learn that Bush has learned to love their new little dog, doesn't like cats anymore than he does broccoli and drives around his compound in a golf cart with a sign that warns, "Property of #41. Hands off!"

Barbara Bush, his wife of 67 years, is barely glimpsed in any current-day footage and heard only once saying, "We'll keep going" while putting together a puzzle with her granddaughter Gigi.

The most poignant parts of 41 are home movies and still pictures of George and Barbara's daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953 shortly after she would have turned four. Bush the elder talks matter-of-factly about her now, but those almost 60 year-old images of Robin may well bring tears to more than a few viewers.

41 then segues to a shot of a windmill on the Kennebunkport property. "Windmill we bought just to be greener than Al Gore," Bush says dryly. It's hard to know whether he's joking or still pissed off.

George H.W. Bush has never been much for introspection. Nor it seems is his son. Both of their post-presidencies have been case studies in relative seclusion, although dad is known to jump out of an airplane from time to time (to show that "old guys can still do interesting things") while George W. cracked some good jokes recently when his official presidential portrait was unveiled at the White House.

The senior Bush has yet to write a memoir and is very unlikely to do so at this point. But he agreed to sit down with Weintraub's director and writer, Jeffrey Roth, after seeing the latter's first film, The Wonder of It All, on the Apollo moon walkers.

Filming took place over a 17-month period, from Sept. 2009 to Feb. 2011, HBO says. It takes until the one hour, seven minute, 30 second mark before we get to footage of Bush being sworn in as president. That leaves scant time for discussion or any real detail before the subject says his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton was "very hurtful."

"There was almost unanimity in the press corps that I should lose," he contends. "They were for him and that makes a huge difference."

The film's last scene shows Bush at peace, looking out at the ocean and pledging to keep the faith with Kennebunkport "until my last days."

41's ever-sappy music swells for a final time as it fades to black. George H.W. Bush, despite his years of public service in a series of high-profile positions, remains a guy who just won't loosen up or, for the most part, say what's really on his mind.

One saving grace, perhaps. Any "In His Own Words" film about the loquacious Clinton would be a minimum 10-hour expedition. And that would be a severe edit. With Bush, a question about whether he could elaborate a bit on his tenure as CIA director gets a definitive "Ssh. No."

But he does say it with a smile.