Well, now that the seventh and final seal was opened a couple of weeks ago, it's nice to revisit the good 'ol days.... History has released Secret Access: The Presidency, a three-disc collection of three previously released documentaries: 2008's Air Force One and The White House Behind Closed Doors, and 2010's The President's Book of Secrets. Sharply produced and filled with lots of cool tidbits about how the White House and Air Force One actually operate (until we get to the speculative The President's Book of Secrets), Secret Access: The Presidency should satisfy anyone looking for a starting point to understanding how these vital American institutions of government quite literally function. No extras for these good-looking transfers. Let's look very briefly at each title.
AIR FORCE ONE
Tech junkies will enjoy Air Force One, which throws out stat after stat on the fabulous pair of VC-25s, housed in a nondescript hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, that serve as "Air Force One" the minute any current president comes aboard. With a flight time capability of over 14 hours, these Boeing babies can fly around the world and then some, carrying up to 70 people when fully loaded (over 830,000 pounds!), with a payload that includes an actual kitchen and the President's armor-plated Caddy ("The Beast"). Of course everyone would like to know the real secrets of these jumbo jets, such as their state-of-the-art defense mechanisms, but for obvious security reasons, Air Force One doesn't delve that deeply. However, it is pretty cool to go right inside the planes and see the interiors (which I don't remember ever seeing before in any doc), including the President's office, the conference room, and even the sleeping chambers, (it's great to see President George W. Bush jump in and briefly host the tour). What really struck home, too, was the mind-boggling prep work that must go into each and every "zero-fail mission" flight of "Air Force One," from constantly liaisoning with security, to ensuring the fuel supply is safe, to carefully monitoring the worldwide weather minute to minute, to making sure each inch of the fuselage is hand-waxed. A very cool look at what has to be the sweetest ride in the skies.
THE WHITE HOUSE BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Guided by First Lady Laura Bush (a gracious, well-spoken host) and her genial, funny husband, President George W. Bush, The White House Behind Closed Doors is framed within the final weeks of 2008, when the Bushes were preparing to hand over the keys of the People's House to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A broad overview of the physical structure itself, and how it operates, The White House Behind Closed Doors provides some brief but interesting history of the construction, burning (thanks, England), re-building...and re-building of the White House, complete with photographs, paintings, and CGI maps and models, which are particularly helpful in orienting the viewer to the complex's layout (I had no idea the building's interior was essentially gutted by Truman, just prior to its imminent collapse from decay). The only world leader's home that is open to the public, the White House is equal parts museum, primary seat of the Executive branch, and the home of the President and his family, and The White House Behind Closed Doors does a good job of covering these three aspects in its speedy 65 minute run time. Rare looks into the second floor living quarters of the First Family are a highlight, including the Treaty Room, which serves as the President's private office, as well as the Lincoln Bedroom, which has been beautifully restored to its original period detail by First Lady Laura Bush. Fun details and moments include the old pool that lies under the Press room, the preserved scorch marks on a section of the brick fašade (courtesy of the War of 1812), the fact that a Cabinet member can actually purchase his or her chair when they leave office (they don't tell us how much, though...), and a laughing President Bush saying pets humanize the White House because "they don't call you names." A solid look at one of our nation's most treasured edifices.
THE PRESIDENT'S BOOK OF SECRETS
The President's Book of Secrets is a particularly fascinating doc at this point in time in our history...but not because it's an especially illuminating look at what secrets might be held at the White House. Snazzily produced with interviews ranging from Newt Gingrich to Dan Rather (unintentionally hilarious, as always) to The Five's heartbreaker, Dana Perino―but completely speculative in nature (with few if any conclusions drawn at the end of the special)―The President's Book of Secrets postulates what might be hidden or written down in a possible secret book or file that may be handed down from President to President...before everyone in the doc says such a proposition is not at all probable or likely. So much for the doc's main point, before it winds down by going off into different, unsuccessful tangents, discussing "Black Budgets" and Skull and Bones, of all things (nice try, guys). No, what I found most fascinating about The President's Book of Secrets were small moments that surely didn't mean anything to the producers back in 2010...but which take on a beguiling piquancy today (to say the least). How about all those arresting stills of the current occupant of the White House in grim, determined "go" mode with his staff...while the doc discusses the importance of not missing security briefings (no matter how good Priceline's rates are to Vegas)? Or our security drones' uncanny ability to patch in feeds directly to the White House in real time (even all the way from Libya, it would seem...)? Perhaps when The President's Book of Secrets is re-released again on DVD, in addition to its chapters on "Conspiracies and Myths" and "Secret Societies and Alliances," we'll have one on "Presidential Impeachments," too....
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.