George W. Bush says he is content to let history judge him. But he misunderestimated Oliver Stone, whose W. puts our departing president on the cinematic cutting board just weeks before the next election. I was concerned over the timing: Stone’s throwing red meat to Bill O’Reilly and the “base” is just the kind of diversion flop-sweating right-wingers are hoping for as the McCain campaign lumbers on. True, conservatives will carp over the more broadly satirical sections, and the distortions to the record as they see them. (The very idea of Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran resistant to swift boating, dipped in Oscar gold, and beloved by segments of the liberal media, is infuriating to the right.) But with so many noted Republicans, Republican incumbents, and Maverick himself running away from Bush’s meager achievements, it will be no easy task for pundits to prove that Stone is the only one kicking Shrub when he’s down. Besides, the movie picks him up from the gutter, and dusts him off a little bit. It’s a portrait Joe the Plumber might endorse, at least in part, if he had that tax cut he needs to afford movie night again.
W. is fitfully entertaining, but Stone’s slash-and-sympathy tactics make for a schizophrenic experience. He is a coarse filmmaker, largely adverse to nuance, and that bludgeoning quality gives his best pictures their lifeforce vitality. When brain matches brawn, you get a Salvador or a Platoon, and I’m partial to the time capsule called Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Any Given Sunday besides. But he overreaches, as with Natural Born Killers and Alexander, and played it safe with World Trade Center, as if he had lost his nerve. He hedges here, more skillfully. W. is a cheekily timed broadside, more sober-minded than Comedy Central’s “That’s My Bush!” (which despite a dead-on interpreter in Timothy Bottoms came and went pre-9/11, before its subject was better defined) and what for some was the wish fulfillment of 2006’s briefly controversial fake documentary Death of a President. We get a recreation of Bush choking on a potato chip as he watches a football game in the White House, but this is treated semi-solemnly, and leads to a flashback.
The film is filled with flashbacks, sprinkled with the research Stone did on the subject (that Morocco sent landmine-sniffing monkeys to Iraq was a new one on me) and dream sequences. It starts with Bush (Josh Brolin) day-dreaming himself as a baseball hero, before a non-existent stadium crowd, then segues into an Oval Office session brainstorming the “axis of evil” speech with his first administration cronies. Mostly, Stone plays pop psychologist when Bush is off in the clouds. The diagnosis is the usual: withholding parents are to blame for our leading man’s misunderstood predicaments, as in Nixon (and Born on the Fourth of July, and Alexander, and elsewhere in the canon). The scenes between W. and H.W. (played by the stiff-backed James Cromwell, a commoner once more but still patrician after his Prince Philip in The Queen) suggest Paul Newman and Melvyn Douglas in Hud, with a presidential seal affixed. 43, a likably rebellious rascal prone to carousing and hellraising, just can’t impress 41, even when he gives up the sauce, marries the proper librarian Laura (Elizabeth Banks, as prim and opaque as required), and after several abortive careers pitches in to help smear Michael Dukakis with Willie Horton, a helpful tactic the soon-to-be-president disdains. Finding Jesus, and riding the evangelical path to the top, is no solution for the striver-in-chief—the principled ex-president, an Episcopalian, distrusts the born-agains. The last gamble for Poppy’s love, as Stone sees it, is the invasion of Iraq, which for the younger Bush is the final break from the long shadow cast by the favored Jeb, who haunts the movie, and vengeance for dad’s lost second term. The war on terror is reimagined as a Freudian tug-of-war, and how it affects the father-son dynamic is the coup de grace of the backstory, not that the Francophobic W. would ever phrase it that way.
That’s the throughline of the picture, the one that attempts to make sense of the Bush legacy over the past two decades, where dad’s “good war” on behalf of Kuwait is mucked up by W.’s hazier shock-and-awe tactics. I imagine you’re more curious about the war room cohorts, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Shot quickly earlier this year, on a modest budget, W. doesn’t go in for elaborate impersonations. It’s casual about appearances—Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush wouldn’t have registered as her had not she and the more easefully cast Cromwell shared every scene—and some actors fare better than others. This bunch has been so widely caricatured that the task is to make them seem vaguely comprehensible; Richard Dreyfuss, as Dick Cheney (called “Vice” by W.), comes through with his brass knuckles realpolitik monologue about blood and oil. By contrast, Jeffrey Wright, a fine actor, lacks the gravitas for the diminished Colin Powell, and his salt-and-pepper hair makes him look all the more sophomoric. Karl Rove will not appreciate the casting of the Infamous Capote, the elfin Toby Jones, in his part, and was likely not meant to. “Condi’s” part is small, but Thandie Newton scores a direct hit; the enigmatic Rice is always poised as if an official portraitist is standing somewhere outside the frame, waiting for her to sit for a oil painting. The most successful performance is the least heralded—as the reverend who shows W. the light, Stacy Keach burns through a scene with real fervor. It’s hard to tell if Stone means the sequence to be humorous (Bush’s eye blends with that of a watchful madonna in a picture, a typically unsubtle effect in a film where blurry montages are underscored ironically with snippets of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”) but the actor is having none of that flippancy.
Brolin’s performance might have been completed had James Brolin played Poppy; a credible Reagan in the 2003 miniseries, the elder Brolin could probably have gotten away with it (perhaps Mrs. Brolin, Barbara Streisand, objected to him playing another Republican president). He goes as far as he can, walking that fine line Spinal Tap drew between stupid and clever. The script crams in every malapropism made in its timeframe, and Brolin delivers most of them through mouthfuls of food. Compared to his closed-mouthed functionaries his president is an avid, devouring personality, hungry for approval. My problem with the film is that Stone wants to have W. both ways, a figure of fun and an unfolding tragedy. Brolin’s performance is as consistent as can be given the mixed signals sent by the director.
On principle, I object to biopics of living people. The stories are unfinished, and the real and reel persons collide. They’re for cheap TV movies, like the fawning one W. scripter Stanley Weiser wrote about Rudy Giuliani in 2003, which is well past its sell-by date today. I didn’t object to W., not for that, anyway. I’m not giving away anything by saying that the film, which skips over the contested 2000 election, ends with the failure to find WMD anywhere in Iraq. At that point, I found it hard to take Bush seriously about anything, and painful to watch. His continued struggles with diction and body language are the stuff of YouTube clips and Letterman’s presidential moments vignettes, where Bush’s daily pratfalls are the punchline to legendary utterances by the likes of Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Johnson. It’s no surprise that Katrina, the economy, etc., turned out to be fiascoes on his unsteady watch, as the blob-like administration took charge and he became the incredible shrinking president. The bar is lowered, and the laughter provoked by W. dies in your throat when you remember that this is not just a movie, like Dr. Strangelove—much as we might like to forget, it all happened, and it continues to play out. Oliver Stone may be the only person left to give a damn about George W. Bush.
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