In 91 days, the most unpopular President of all time (or at least, in the history of polls) will leave office after being elected to two terms. His time in office will mark the end of a Presidency that left the country deeply polarized, in the midst of war, and wallowing in economic ruin. The Presidency of George W. Bush was not without headlines. The attacks of September 11th, 2001. The devastating Hurricane Katrina, and the slow federal response to secure the safety of the citizens of New Orleans. The promises of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the excuses when none were found. A preemptive war in Iraq. The attempt to amend the constitution in order to further alienate the gay community. The suspension of habeus corpus. The refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Vetoing Stem Cell research. Dismissing U.S. Attorneys. Wiretapping. Waterboarding. Gitmo. Walter Reed. Brownie. Alberto Gonzalez. Rummy. Harriet Miers. Swift Boats. It’s quite a resume.
The George Bush portrayed in Oliver Stone’s “W” may not be what you expect. He comes across as friendly, charming and sincere. However, he is also naive, easily manipulated by his advisors, and in over his head. The surprise of “W” is that I do not believe after watching it that Stone believes Bush to be a bad man.
The problems I have with “W” are not due to the skill of the filmmaker, but in the nature of making a film about a President who is still in office. The film has an unfinished feel to it, probably because the President isn’t finished yet. Typically, biopics of Presidents are made after history has had a little time to render a verdict. I suppose Stone thinks the verdict is already in. “W” follows the early years of George W. Bush as a ne’re-do-well intercut with the meetings that led up to the invasion of Iraq.
The early portion of W’s (Josh Brolin) life opens with a drunken fraternity party that eerily conjures images of waterboarding. Bush and some other pledges get Jack Daniels poured over their faces as they gasp for air. He bounces around from job to job, never settling on anything and drinking himself silly along the way. The focus of the film is largely on Bush’s relationship with his father, George Sr. (James Cromwell). Bush Sr. sees W as a screw up, the opposite of the well behaved Jeb. Stone will make the point throughout the film that much of W’s desire to get sober, achieve greatness and clean up his act will be in the pursuit of his father’s approval.
Many of the intriguing moments of W are not fully developed. After losing his first bid for Congress, W vows that he “will never be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again”. This comment seems to imply that Bush’s experience as a born again Christian were politically motivated. Yet the scenes involving his transformation of faith seem to be sincere. Which is it? Elizabeth Banks does a fantastic job of making a saint of a woman out of Laura Bush, but their marriage and relationship is also not fully developed. We get the feeling that Laura was a large influence of Bush’s transformation from a drunken louse but we don’t get too in depth there.
The most fascinating and intriguing moments of W are the strategy session in the lead up to the Iraqi invasion. These show an earnest and sincere Bush trying to do what he truly thinks is right, while the villains lurk in the shadows pulling the strings. Watch how Karl Rove (Toby Jones) hides in darkness, apart from the other men. Watch how Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) sits quietly while the men argue the merits of the invasion before taking over. Though he isn’t always speaking, Cheney is always in charge of that room. Dreyfuss does amazing things with the presence of Cheney in this film. As the puppeteers do their thing, Bush moves closer towards Rove and Cheney, easily manipulated by their simplistic “straight talk”. Thandie Newton’s Condoleeza Rice alternated back and forth between the greatest imitation I have ever seen and a cartoonish farce. The phenomenal Jeffrey Wright portrays Colin Powell as the lone dissenting voice in the room. If Powell’s involvement in these meetings went the way Stone portrays it, it becomes more clear why he jumped party lines to endorse Barack Obama on Sunday.
W plays it pretty fair. There was nothing in the strategy scenes that I felt wasn’t plausible or believable. Bush is played as a man who got places more on his connections and charm than with his brains and ability. A sincere man with sincere faith who bit off more than he could chew. An unnecessary dream sequence involving Bush and his father distract from an otherwise engaging film. The device of Bush alone in his empty baseball stadium is effective and resonant. By my count, Oliver Stone hasn’t made a film this good since 1994’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS. However, W still suffers from being too close in history to the subject it’s covering. There is too much material and too many characters to cover in this running time. The result is a film that is extremely engrossing but a bit unfocused.