Everyone, at one time or another, has piled into the car with a bunch of friends, and set off on a road trip to…somewhere. And chances are at least one member of the entourage drags along a camcorder to document this epic voyage, in all its ignominious glory. Director Alexandra Pelosi did the exact same thing in her hysterical, yet subtly disturbing documentary “Journeys With George.” The only difference between her video diary and yours, however, is that she’s traveling with then-Governor George W. Bush, the man destined to become the President of the United States. (Insert residual growl of protest here.)
At the time a producer for NBC news, Pelosi first boards the rattletrap plane assigned to Bush’s press corps as he’s negotiating the sub-Arctic climes of a pre-New Hampshire primary winter. Her journey doesn’t end until Inauguration Day. In between, she treats us to a surprisingly unvarnished look at “W,” complete with his Cheetos fetish, unnatural fondness for baloney and cheese sandwiches, and a seemingly irrepressible urge to make dopey faces for her ever-present camcorder. We’re also immersed in the bizarre sub-culture of the press entourage; missing the journalists’ children with them, eavesdropping on gossip, giggling at burgeoning romances, and seemingly endless partying.
In the end, though, this film always comes back to “W.” Here we witness up close and personal the Governor’s legendary full-time charm campaign, especially when it comes to the press. Pelosi — and, by extension, any journalist on the plane — is George’s best friend…as long as she doesn’t ask any tough questions.
And here is where the film’s sinister subtext comes into play. “Journey’s With George” is a chronicle not only of one man’s quest to be president, but of how that man single-handedly turned a plane full of hard-bitten, cynical journalists into what was essentially, by campaign’s end, an extended publicity department. A birthday cake from the Governor here and a pat on the back there, combined with the underlying knowledge that it was in the press corps’s collective best interest that their subject becomes president, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the journalists to maintain their objectivity.
Sadly, this chilling issue gets touched on only lightly, losing out to a glut of ever-more party footage. Which gets to the core problem of “Journeys With George.” Regardless of what’s going on in the campaign, the film rolls along at the same intensity, as smoothly as a Greyhound bus cruising I-10 in the Arizona flatlands. Disasters in the campaign, such as Bush’s losses to Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire and Michigan, are touched on only lightly. Vice President Gore and the general campaign scarcely exist. Even the pinnacle of high drama, the hung election and the ensuing Florida melodrama, garners only about two minutes of screen time. Suffice it to say, this is no “The War Room.”
In the end, while “Journeys with George” is a highly entertaining film, cynics might say it resembles the president himself: Lotsa feel-good without a lot of substance.