by Cynthia Fuchs

19 January 2009

Crawford entertains and informs, exposing the crass stagecraft of the Western White House.

Healthy Opportunists

I think they have tried to paint a picture of George Bush as a real person, not a plastic person.
—Norma Nelson-Crow, store owner

cover art


Director: David Modigliani
Cast: Mike Murphy, Norma Nelson-Crow, Misti Turbeville, Tom Warlick

US theatrical: 1 Jan 2009 (Limited release)

“They make you try to fit this mold,” says Tom Warlick, “especially since Bush got here.” Since he’s been speaking out against the war in Iraq, 16-year-old Tom says, his neighbors in Crawford, Texas have been assuming he’s a member of “That group of kids,” the troublemakers and the rebels, the kids who don’t conform.

As he describes his experience in Crawford, Tom was originally a George W. Bush supporter, excited when the governor bought a ranch in Crawford, two years before he would run for president. David Mogdiliani’s documentary—promoting its DVD release this month with a 50 State Screening Party titled “Farewell to W”—begins as Bush appears before a high school graduation in 2000, smiling at his introduction as “the next president.” “It has a nice ring to it,” he says, surrounded by football players and proud parents.

Marking the passage of time with shots of the Lone Star Iconoclast‘s front page headlines over the years (“Crawford High School Band to Perform at Inauguration,” “America Goes to War”), the documentary tracks the effects of Bush’s arrival in his new “hometown.” Some folks are annoyed, like rancher Ricky Smith (“You got a tourist under every rock now and there’s lots of law dogs everywhere you look. I used to leave here and hell, we’d shoot dove all the way to town, you know ride to town with guns hanging out the window”) or retired justice of the peace Bill Holmes (“I’d say it costs the federal government between $250,000 and $500,000 for him to come to town and eat a hamburger”). Others appreciate the newcomers. Dorothy Spanos, owner of the Coffee Station, appreciated the influx of money and attention, the visits by Condoleezza Rice and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Still other Crawford natives see a boon to the local economy. Norma Nelson-Crow, who opened a store to sell Bush souvenirs, approves the economic boon that attended the candidate’s visits and then the president’s vacations. “I am a healthy opportunist,” she says, “In that we saw potential for reviving the town.” Even high school history teacher Misti Turbeville, politically progressive and not exactly a Bush fan, concedes that his association with Crawford generated lively classroom conversations and exposed students to new ideas: She says she likes to ask, “Why do you think this particular thing is right or wrong or good or bad,” after which a bit of classroom discussion footage includes her comment, “I think when a presidential candidate chooses a place to live two years before he’s going to run, it’s a very, very political decision.”

The film supports her analysis, in part through exposing the crass stagecraft of the Western White House. Local anchor Bruce Gietzen laughs as he describes the news crews who took the set-up offered by the Bush staffers again and again. “It’s like a whole little world and it’s in a one five square block area.” A montage of standup shots (by CNN, NBX, and Fox) show hay bales and a “broken down shed,” as well the business of pitching the president’s “hometown.” Tom Warlick adds, “It really isn’t the truth, if you know anything about him. I mean, he was born in Connecticut, from one of the wealthiest families in the world. People tend to forget that when they see the reports, you know, with bales of hay in the background.”

While Norma sees these images another way (“He is a man who respects himself and I think the old rustic settings, the old barn, the pictures of nature behind him, maybe that’s part of the game plan, I don’t know”), Crawford is partial to Tom and Misti’s perspectives. He describes his sense of revelation when he went with to Washington DC with his class, and found “anarchists” with “black hoods.” Until then, he recalls, he had been a Bush supporter, but when he “looked on the internet for a while,” he discovered, “Hey, there’s another viewpoint from the one the television makes me believe/”

The film notes Tom’s efforts to make his community aware of his findings as it also follows the shifting meanings of Crawford following 9/11 and perhaps especially, following Cindy Sheehan’s protest in the summer of 2005. Reactions to her campout are mixed, as she galvanizes local peace activists and Bush supporters alike (Ricky Smith enjoys his 15 minutes by spray-painting “Cindy” across his horse’s rear and riding it through town in front of international news trucks. (He recalls that he refused to be interviewed by those “much of communists” at CNN.)

Intercutting shots of Sheehan’s protest (“I don’t care about them saying I’m a crackpot, that I’m a media whore”) and Bush’s pronouncements of the war’s success (including the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner), the film also allows for provocative and performative moments, as when Misti sits down with Dorothy Spanos and her husband to discuss the war in Iraq. “I don’t think there’s any connection between the hijackers and Iraq,” says Misti. The camera cuts to Dorothy, who says assuredly, “I think for some reason we do have a reason to be over there.” This exchange is followed by President Bush at a news conference, the camera panning the solemn faces of reporters, absorbing his line just as Dorothy has: “Al Qaeda wants to hurt us here. The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones that attacked us in America on September the 11th. That ought to be a lesson for the American people.”

The lesson seems clearer now. But, as Crawford argues, it’s important to challenge every idea and image put to you.



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