A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 131 mins.
2008, PG-13, 131 mins.
G.W. Bush: Josh Brolin / Laura: Elizabeth Banks / Barbara: Ellen
Burstyn / George Sr. James Cromwell / Dick Cheney: Richard
Dreyfuss / Rumsfeld: Scott Glenn / Karl Rove: Toby Jones /
Rev. Hudd: Stacy Keach / Powell: Jeffrey Wright / Rice: Thandie
"I'm the master of low expectations."
- George W. Bush aboard Air Force One, June 4, 2003
I have always
admired the fierce ambition of Oliver Stone. His films very rarely,
if ever, take the easiest routes with their subject matter and themes.
He takes characters and issues that most filmmakers would sanitize and
sentimentalize to the point of ad nausea, not to mention that he tackles
themes that most directors would never dare touch and are able to
infuse in them something more substantial.
That’s the Stonian touch: He may not be successful every time,
but at least he strives for something more with his cinematic curveballs.
He’s always pushing the dramatic envelope while pushing our buttons; as
he once famously said, “Films have to be
subversive in order for them to be any good, because they force you
to look for and ask hard questions that don’t have simple and easily
Stone, to his
credit, has certainly never made a film that was not compelling, nor
has he ever truly made an awful film (unless one can excuse the only
major hiccup on his resume, the abortive U-TURN) and he has definitely
made some of the greatest films of the last 20 years. PLATOON, BORN
ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, JFK, NATURAL BORN
KILLERS, NIXON (a uniformly under-appreciated masterpiece) are some of his noteworthy achievements.
Hell, even his lesser works, like 2004's critically maligned, but too
decent to be considered garbage, ALEXANDER, was simply too potently epic
and daringly ambitious to be unfairly chastised as a letdown.
This approach is
very similar to what Stone did with his brilliant biopic of a previous
President, Richard Nixon (a persona in history that also made colossal mistakes
and blunders while in the Oval Office and was rigidly scrutinized and
demonized). NIXON humanized its President by letting his story
unpeel to the point where it hinted at and achieved a level of Greek
tragedy. The tragedy of
George Walker Bush is that he had broad ambitions in life, but he simply
did not have the smarts to carry his ambitious plans through to successful
fruition. The film is also one of deep and penetrating irony: Dubya was
a man that strived to be his own man and break away from his father’s
shadow, but he paradoxically let himself become the puppet to wiser political forces
once he attained prominence in politics.
W. does not let him off the hook, but it’s not entirely without
sympathy for the man either.
The script of the
film was written pre-Writer’s Strike by Stanley Weiser, who had
previously collaborated with Stone on 1987’s WALL STREET (one of that
decade’s defining films, and one that still bares great relevance
now, especially with our financially unstable times). Stone
and Weiser researched and read dozens of books on Bush’s life, but their
intention was not to make a broad and sweeping narrative of his entire
life. Instead, W. has a
non-linear structure that ostensibly focuses on the events leading up to
the 2003 Iraqi invasion. Most
of the film is told in snippets and flashbacks, but the small scenes speak
wonders to the whole at the fleshing out Bush.
We see his wild partying days at Yale as a 19-year-old, (played
throughout the film by Josh Brolin, more on him later), his struggles with
alcohol and the law, his early jobs on oil rigs, the courtship of his
future wife, Laura Welch (well played by Elizabeth Banks), his baseball
ownership days, his troublesome attempts at becoming Governor of Texas,
his attempts in 1988 to help get elder Bush (James Cromwell) elected
President, and, most importantly, his conversion to the Christian faith,
which he believed gave him a calling to follow his father’s footsteps
into the White House. Throughout
all of this Stone’s mission is to paint Bush Jr. as a man of stubborn
conviction and deeply vented insecurities.
The simplicity of
the film's focus is what makes W. all the more intriguing. Bush was
never driven by his intelligence (clearly) in political matters, nor
through a burning, life-long desire to serve in office. At the heart
of the film is Dubya's yearning to outcast his father's influence out of
his life so he could emerge as a somebody. Throughout his life, Bush
Sr. is a cold, emotionally distant, and unapproachable presence to his
son and his lack of showing any form of encouragement and compassion for
his endeavors torments him.
Stone often uses recurring visual metaphors in the
film - fantasy sequences of Bush
inside a vast and empty baseball park as he hears the cheering and
screaming voices of imaginary fans. The purpose here is to show Bush
as a man hindered by obsessive, self-absorbed heroic impulses. He
feels he's on a self-righteous mission from God to serve his country in
office and desperately clamors for the public to stand behind him and
appreciate his efforts. In one of the final fantasy sequences a pop
fly is hit to him deep in center field, but the ball never makes it to the
ground for him to catch. He seems befuddled and confused as to what
has happened and what to do next. The camera slowly dollies in on
his eyes, pools into his perplexed state. The way the film
approaches minor tragedy is kind of sad, seeing as its portrait of Bush
is that of a man that truly felt he had a calling to serve, but was
perhaps a bit too small minded to see that the almighty did not give him
the necessary tools to govern with.
James Cromwell is
also fantastic; he too looks and sounds nothing like his real life
character, but he gives Bush Sr. a calm and authoritative aura of power, which is crucial to help
epitomize him as a looming presence over his son. There is a bold
dream sequence that pits elder Bush versus Junior in an empty Oval Office
at one point, where Bush Sr. stands to confront his son to have a throw
down due to his resentment and disappointment in him. It’s fiendishly funny, if not without a grain of mournful
melancholy. The sad aspect of Bush W. is that he's constantly a
figure pining for the affection of an empowered father that always talks
down to him and feels little, if any, confidence in him accomplishing
anything in life. Father Bush sees his other son, Jeb, as the next
heir apparent politician in the Bush legacy, which serves as a wounding
sticking point throughout W's life.
doesn’t portray the father as a stuck up, cruel, and vindictive
presence. He brings an air of a calm spoken and principled man that
does care for his son (there is a touching moment when he gives W a highly
sentimental gift upon his presidential inauguration), even when he feels
that he's let his family down on many occasions. He's not a
monstrous paternal presence in the film: despite his place of prominence
in American history, Cromwell's father acts like just about any other
normal father would under the circumstances.
performances are strong too, especially by Richard Dreyfus, who is so
creepily effective as Vice President Cheney. One key moment - where
he reveals his grand scheme as to why America needs to Invade Iraq in 2003
- is quietly chilling. He
plays the Vice Pres with a subtle Emperor Palpatine-like control over the
often hapless and ill-informed Bush. The interesting angle here is
that Bush frequently tells Cheney to keep a lid on it and stay quiet while
in meetings, but the film shows that it's Cheney and others that
delicately and smugly pull all of the strings.
Other power players over Bush in the film include an almost
unrecognizable Thandie Newton playing Condie Rice, Toby Jones playing
front man Karl Rove, and Scott Glen playing Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
Only one figure in Bush’s intimate inner political circle comes
off with any level of decency and compassion and that’s Colin Powell,
played nicely by Jeffrey Wright, who many times through the film shares
the audience’s stupefied reaction to the things spoken by Bush’s other
disreputable policy makers.
No matter, because W. rises far above expectations in the way it does not overly simplify a notoriously simpleminded politician. Not only that, but no one should miss Josh Brolin here – an actor seriously hitting his stride after appearing in one good film after another, like last year’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – as he gives a truly exhilarating and frequently sincere and vulnerable performance as the beer guzzling, skirt chasing, baseball craving, God searching, and WMD crazed President of the US. I would also add political pawn to that list, which makes Dubya even more of a sympathetic figure in the film. Stone does not absolve him completely, mind you, but his goal was not to make, as he called it, an “anti-Bush polemic.” His real mission was to trace the events that curiously made Bush the man he became today.
In short: a man not to be misunderestimated.