In a refreshing change of pace, this week's anti-Bush documentary, "Bush's Brain," is not really about George W. Bush at all. It's about his senior political adviser, Karl Rove, who, the movie would have you believe, is Waylon Flowers to Bush's Madame. The movie doesn't offer much of a psychological profile, just a lot of tattling in the service of incrimination. But the accusations are alarming and juicy enough to strike up a watchable combo of fear and gall.
In the early going (the movie's a brisk 80 minutes), we're told that Rove is basically a kind, soft-spoken, extremely bright man. But he has a "dark side" that the movie won't shut up about, going to all sorts of highly speculative but, given the case the film makes, oddly plausible extremes.
The film's boldest assertion is that Rove is the chief suspect in the CIA leak debacle of last year. He's alleged to be the person who outed the secret operative Valerie Plame to cranky columnist Robert Novak, who promptly outed her to the rest of the world. Most of the talking heads in "Bush's Brain" concur, even Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, the career ambassador. According to the theories, Rove wanted to punish Wilson for his bruising report, which suggested that the Bush administration, in its eagerness to go to war, may have exaggerated Saddam Hussein's weapons stockpile.
Rove is portrayed as unstoppably venal. We see him as the Iago of high school debate, of the Young Republicans, of several political campaigns, and now of the White House. The film is adapted from James Moore and Wayne Slater's 2003 bestseller "Bush's Brain," but because the directors are looking only to show Rove as a rabid attack dog, they have no use for the aims stated by the subtitle, "How Karl Rove Made George Bush Presidential." In the film, all you get is the sense that Rove is Bush's strategic life support.
The movie takes us back to the 1986 Texas governor's race, where the Democratic candidate, Mark White, had managed to close the gap on Bill Clements, Rove's candidate, enough to leave them tied in the polls. Then Rove reports that he found a listening device in his office, and magically White's numbers drop. Going back further, young Rove used to try to psych out debate opponents by showing up to meets with twice the number of index cards people tend to use at these tournaments.
Rove does defend himself, sort of. Having secured a copy of the "Bush's Brain" manuscript, Rove, who comes off as a raving faxoholic, sent a perturbed letter to one of the authors, which the filmmakers use from time to time to feebly rebut their suppositions.
The movie, which Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey directed, tacks on a sad and unearned passage with the family of a soldier who died in the early days of the Iraq war. Also, it leaves open a number of burning questions, such as what kind of woman marries Karl Rove?
A lot of what Rove is accused of in the film conflates the petty and the profoundly illegal. He never comes off as less than utterly dangerous, yet he is cast as woefully juvenile, too. To recap his adventures this way is a reminder that you can take the wonk out of high school. But can you ever take high school out of the wonk?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.