I took some time out this afternoon to catch David Modigliani’s documentary, Crawford, the first feature-length film to receive its premiere on the video sharing site Hulu. Crawford documents the rise and fall of George W. Bush through the perspective of the residents of Crawford, TX, the small town that Bush adopted as a hometown when he began running for the presidency back in 2000. In addition to reflecting on the Bush presidency, however, Crawford becomes a profound, but entertaining, reflection on the experiences of a number of Crawford’s residents as they become accidental witnesses to history.
Crawford introduces us to a number of compelling local characters who express varying degrees of enthusiasm for President Bush’s arrival in their quiet small town. A Baptist pastor, Mike Murphy, enthusiastically welcomes the arrival of Bush’s family, extending an open invitation to his church. Norma Nelson-Crow seizes on Bush’s arrival in town to open a souvenir shop catering to the tourists who come to town. Others are less enthusiastic: Leon Smith, who runs Crawford’s local paper, eventually finds Bush’s justification for war in Iraq lacking and ends up endorsing John Kerry in 2004. But the most compelling figures in the film are a local high school teacher, Misty Tubeville, who is critical of Bush’s policies but sees his presence in Crawford as an opportunity to help her students become more enthusiastic about politics, and Tom Warlick, a local student who gradually finds himself questioning the war after talking to protesters at Bush’s inauguration.
Notably, Bush appears in the film almost entirely as an absent presence, depicted through TV soundbites and staged media events that suggest that Crawford, in some ways, is little more than a backdrop against which Bush can project his rancher image to the voting public. Many residents laugh that footage of Bush clearing brush ostensibly on his ranch was actually taken behind the high school gym. If their cameras panned a little to the left, the track around the football field would come into view. Tom, in a moment of keen insight notes that Crawford served much like a can of white paint for Bush, helping to “cover over” some of the blemishes on his record. Of course, a number of Crawford’s residents clearly admire Bush and continue to do so long after his popularity waned elsewhere, and Modigliani’s camera subtly captures the background details–the cardboard cutouts of Bush and his family in the local coffeehouse or the kitschy souvenirs at the local store–that reinforce Bush’s status as a local celebrity.
The film follows much of the trajectory of Bush’s presidency, starting with his early popularity through the dramatic summer in which Cindy Sheehan staged a protest of several weeks outside of Bush’s ranch while he vacationed there. The town, suddenly overrun with protesters and counterprotesters (some estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people came to Crawford), finds itself at the center of a heated conflict over the war, testing the patience of the residents who now find their lives overturned. Of course, just as quickly as they arrive, most of these unexpected guests leave, transforming the town yet again, allowing the residents to reflect on what effect Bush’s presence in Crawford has had on their community.