A strange, extremely personal and fascinating look at George W. Bush, Oliver Stone’s W. is a film that seems determined to not quite please anybody. Those hoping for a hatchet job on Bush are apt to find the film too soft. Those hoping for a valentine to the president probably aren’t planning to see the film, and would almost certainly think it is a hatchet job if they did. What Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) have made is hardly a pro-Bush movie, though they have made one that is—if not sympathetic—at least not unsympathetic.
Though heavily based on substantiated material, the film has the feel of a filmmaker trying to understand his subject: who he is, what made him who he is, how he got where he did and why. Not surprisingly, this results in a wholly subjective portrait of Bush, arrived at by piecing facts together with perceptions in a way that makes sense to Messrs. Stone and Weiser. Whether you agree with what they arrive at is another matter. The immediacy of making a film about a sitting president is such that it’s quite possible that even they may no longer entirely agree with their own original conjectural conclusions.
The film is structured as a series of flashbacks, occasional fantasies (the more outrageous of which were—probably wisely—cut before release) and dream sequences wrapped around a fairly straightforward time line that takes Bush from his days at Yale up to the moment when the presumed “triumph” of the Iraq war crashed and burned and his approval ratings started to seriously plummet. Many things are shunted aside—especially as concerns Bush’s domestic policies—in order to keep the bulk of the film’s focus on the Iraq situation. This is most likely a smart move, since it’s the material that’s easiest to dramatize and—despite the fact that the war is still not over—it offers a point on which to conclude a movie that basically cannot be concluded.
W. presents Bush (spectacularly played by Josh Brolin) as a not-terribly-bright, not-terribly-mature, not-terribly-suave guy who doesn’t really know what he wants, but is in constant inner turmoil over being in his father’s (James Cromwell) shadow and being unfavorably compared (not without reason) to his brother Jeb (Jason Ritter), who is all but written out of the film as an on-screen presence. It’s a satirical portrait, but how could it not be? We are, after all, dealing with a man who makes pronouncements on the importance of education, yet can’t conjugate a verb while talking about it, and who says that Saddam Hussein “misunderestimated” him. What we are not dealing with in this film is a man who is evil.
As presented by Stone, Bush is first and foremost a tool of political opportunists like Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones), who see him as the embodiment of someone voters “would like to have a beer with.” These people are depicted as using Bush—and his arrogance and unshakable belief that God is directing him—to their own ends, often quite brazenly. In the scene where it is decided to go to war in Iraq, Bush asks Cheney what the exit strategy is, only to be chillingly, matter-of-factly told, “There is no exit.” It’s a moment that by itself virtually justifies the whole film.
The casting of the film is a large reason it works. The entire cast is superb, even if some of the actors bear only a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts, while others are almost frighteningly like them. The standouts—apart from Brolin—however, are Dreyfuss and Jeffrey Wright, who plays Colin Powell, the only person in the Bush entourage who isn’t comfortable with what he sees happening.
The results aren’t perfect by any means. Stone so wants to understand his subject that he’s determined to draw a conclusion that’s frankly simplistic. The idea that Bush is entirely driven by his father’s disapproval may have a certain validity. It’s also implied that the elder Bush has his own daddy issues in the scene where he passes on a pair of cuff links to W. that were given to him by his father (“the only thing of real value he ever gave me”). But the notion that subconsciously Bush rose to the heights of power so that he could fail more spectacularly than ever before and besmirch the family name to get back at “Poppy” is a significant leap. It’s certainly intriguing as speculation, but that’s all it is.
Regardless of any such flaws, W. is a film that should be seen by persons on either side of the political fence, simply because it tries to actually understand the man—not just simply damn him or blindly praise him. For that alone, Stone deserves considerable praise. Rated PG-13 for language, including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.