The mark of a great documentary is that no matter how many books you’ve read on a given subject (three about Air Force One) or other documentaries you’ve seen (also three, but two were about the 707 and one was about the 747, produced by National Geographic), you learn something new.
The History Channel, by way of New Video, has brought together two great documentaries and a debatable third one as Secret Access: The Presidency. The three-disc set starts with a documentary about Air Force One, which builds the drama of President George W. Bush’s seven-day trip to five countries in Africa, from the perspectives of those charged with making this mission, flight 12198, a success, as is expected with every presidential flight. Cinematographers Peter Schnall (who also directs along with Doug Shultz, Don Campbell, and Whitney Johnson), Richard Kruger, and Erich Roland shoot all the activity with an impressive stateliness, showing off the dignity and pride of doing everything necessary to make sure the president gets to his destinations safely, from three days out to the day of the flight, to the flights to come throughout Africa, and then the trip home. One thing I never knew, at least about the VC-25, the military version of the Boeing 747 that serves as Air Force One, of which there are two, is that 17,000 square feet of the hull is waxed by hand and that those who want to be part of the Air Force One family, as presidential pilot Colonel Mark Tillman calls them, can spend 5 to 7 years polishing wood and glass alone before being entrusted to do more. In 30 minutes alone, you get this fact and a whole lot more, rapidly, as food must be prepared carefully, the plane must be checked, the route confirmed (a dicey route since there’s not a great deal of air traffic control throughout Africa and there is the potential danger of the plane being under attack), locations in Africa checked and rechecked by advance teams, the fuel tested, and so much more, all at the pleasure of the president. Editor Brett Young is a master at putting all this together, and after 30 minutes passes, you want more. You get more, but then you still want more, even as the plane arrives back at Andrews Air Force Base from Africa. It would likely be the same story, save for some changes in flights within the United States, but these four filmmakers should make more documentaries about Air Force One, digging for more stories that could be found. There’s a lot of them, certainly about the mechanics alone who repair Air Force One. My only disappointment with this documentary is that the name of the narrator is not listed in the end credits. Whoever he is, he’s an equal part of the team that put all this together, as well as whoever wrote the script for him, also uncredited. He gives it that added weight that brings still more majesty to the presidential aircraft.
The White House: Behind Closed Doors, the second disc, is in the same vein as Air Force One, but with gentler cinematography, since this is the White House after all, and not as dramatic, but still very much important for the First Family and those who work there, including florists, electricians, chefs, butlers, and others. The president and First Lady Laura Bush are interviewed together, and separately, the First Lady gives a tour of the White House to Antiques Roadshow expert twins Leigh and Leslie Keno, who respectfully admire all that they are shown, and ask the questions expected of them as antiques experts, though Laura Bush does most of the talking, and that’s OK, because besides narrator James Jude Forbes and the script provided by Christopher Cassel giving ample interesting history of the building, she has a unique perspective, being that she visited while Reagan was there, and stayed over while her father- and mother-in-law were the president and First Lady. She’s a dignified tour guide who imparts a pleasant touch on the history of this grand house. This documentary also meets the definition of greatness, because I knew a bit about the forced rebuilding of the inside of the White House after it began to fall apart during Truman’s administration, but not to the extent covered here. The photos featured of that reconstruction are staggering. It’s also nice to see what goes into a state visit and state dinner, this one for John Kufuor, president of Ghana and his wife Theresa, in the September before the Bushes left the White House, including the pastry shop located above the White House kitchen which is the newest addition, having been built in 1992, and also apparently the smallest room in the White House at 250 square feet. This and Air Force One could be useful in classrooms. I wish they had been around during my history classes. There’s plenty of fodder for post-viewing discussions.
The President’s Book of Secrets, on the third disc, goes between being a comfy, cozy set of bedtime stories for conspiracy theorists and presenting hard information about secret passageways in the White House, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center beneath the East Wing (PEOC, which Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, among others, were rushed to on September 11, 2011), and the “nuclear football,” a black bag carried by a military aide who always stays near the president, which contains the nuclear codes. But then, the somber, broad-voiced narrator wonders if there is a book passed down to each president containing what only they need to know. This line of thinking starts with the letter left on the Oval Office desk by George W. Bush for President Obama on his first day in office, considering what it might have said to him, if it contained secrets that only these two men need know. I don’t doubt the value of such speculation since almost none of us will ever become president, but it just goes around and around and around the same topics when not talking about PEOC or the tunnel leading outside the White House, which Susan Ford used when she lived in the White House. It’s the longest of these three documentaries and the only one that would have been better served by being shorter. Air Force One gives so much fascinating information in only 50+ minutes, and The White House: Behind Closed Doors shows off the Lincoln Bedroom and other areas of the White House not covered on the tour in a little more time than that. A shorter runtime can make a documentary more effective, depending on the subject, and speculation becomes more interesting if it’s streamlined, as would have helped here.
Not having paid any attention to History Channel DVDs since The Presidents series was re-released in April of this year, Secret Access: The Presidency makes me hope to see more of them in the future. The worst that you get from the History Channel is the occasional documentary that goes on for far too long. The best that you get is a starting point to trigger voracious curiosity. I feel sated with what Air Force One presents, no need to dig for more at the moment, but now I want to know a lot more about the Truman White House renovation, thanks to the History Channel helping history do what it’s meant to do.