With Pres. George W. Bush’s approval ratings barely reaching the low 20s, who would have thought that filmmaker Oliver Stone would be the one to treat him like a human being?
Not that his new film, “W.”, won’t be controversial. The Bush partisans will undoubtedly condemn it because it’s not a hagiography and because it suggests that, gee, Bush might be a tad shallow. And the Bush haters will be upset because it doesn’t treat him like an absolute buffoon.
And certainly its accuracy will be condemned as suspect because famous quotes have been transposed, shifted from public to private or vice versa. Bush’s fumbling of the “fool me once, shame on me” bromide, (“Fool me twice, um, won’t get fooled again” – “Hey, a shout-out to my amigo Pete Townsend!”) for example, is blurted during a situation-room meeting with his advisers, rather than during a public moment in front of cameras. But hey, folks, it’s a movie.
Stone, cinematic agent provocateur, once again has done the unexpected: He’s made a movie that’s shockingly even-handed. Using a standard construction – creating a “present,” then bouncing back to key moments in Bush’s past and moving chronologically forward – Stone gives W. foibles and vulnerability, rendering him in the majority of three dimensions, rather than as caricature.
True, this Bush – like the real one – suffers from that deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance. He knows what he knows – and he assumes that anything else is irrelevant. He has the same irritating sense of certainty and self-confidence that has driven his detractors wild over the past eight years.
But Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser give Bush context: an Oedipal fire to prove himself to his patrician father (played with a blend of sympathy and distaste for his son by James Cromwell) that borders on the patricidal. Bush-41 loves his son but despairs of him ever making anything of himself. Bush-43 burns not just to prove his father’s judgment wrong but to stuff it in his pork-rind-eating face.
The story’s present is the run-up to and commencement of the Iraq war. Bush and his hubristic team (Thandie Newton as Condi Rice, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld) debate the WMD evidence – not as to whether it warrants an attack but whether it will stand up in a court of public opinion to justify the preemptive attack they’ve already decided to make.
The only voice of restraint is Colin Powell, played with banked anger by Jeffrey Wright. When it all goes badly wrong post-invasion, Powell even gets a nice little “I told you so” (and gets to tell Cheney, “Fuck you, Dick”).
The flashbacks present Bush’s formative years: as a brown-nosing fraternity pledge at Yale, as a slacker bouncing from job to job after college, as a burgeoning alcoholic earning his father’s disdain for his rowdy public behavior. He eventually meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), gives up drinking, finds Jesus – and decides to run for governor of Texas. Even then, he rubs his father the wrong way because he runs in the same year brother Jeb makes his first run to be governor of Florida. Talk about shock and awe: W wins and Jeb loses.
Stone takes dramatic license at times, but the facts seem fairly on the mark. Bush, after all, has been chronicled in dozens of books, from the Kitty Kelley family biography to Bob Woodward’s series of tomes on the Bush presidency. All of this family tension isn’t a secret.
Stone frames the film with dream sequences: Bush, wearing a Texas Rangers jacket and cap, alone in the outfield of an empty stadium, though the roar of the crowd is heard. At the beginning of the film, he chases down a fly ball and makes a leaping catch at the wall. At the end, he backs up to the wall – and loses it in the lights. An apt metaphor.
You’ll chuckle at some of the portrayals. Newton’s clipped diction and obsequious demeanor is like Condoleeza leavened with Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, or perhaps Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine. Dreyfuss as Cheney is spot on, particularly when he smiles with one side of his mouth.
But Josh Brolin’s Bush is never less than human, even if the human he’s portraying is irritatingly self-absorbed. The public Bush we’ve seen for more than a decade is so cocksure that you wish you could slap him and say, “Wise up.” But Brolin lets us see the doubts, the insecurities and the envy that bubble up as he moves inexorably forward.
The real interest, of course, is how Stone handles the Iraq material. Ultimately he portrays Bush as a fall guy of sorts, a tool of the neocons who, in their rush to war, knowingly piped bad intelligence about WMDs to him in order to promote the agenda of removing Saddam Hussein. Stone’s Bush is angry at being played but unwilling to admit that he’s been fooled. Shame on him.
This ignores, unfortunately, the idea that it was a two-way street with Bush and the neocons – that Bush had Saddam’s removal on his agenda from the very start and was merely looking for justification. In all likelihood, this marriage made in hell was a case of mutual self-delusion. Or mutual masturbation.
If there’s a complaint here, it’s that Stone doesn’t take more chances. In many ways, it’s a surprisingly conventional biopic. On the other hand, it’s hard to remember another feature film that portrayed a sitting president this honestly (you can’t really count 1963’s “PT-109,” in which John F. Kennedy was depicted as little short of a super-hero).
Great filmmaking? Probably not. Fascinating to watch? Absolutely.