W.

Movie Information

The Story: A look into the life of George W. Bush, from his misspent youth to his presidency. The Lowdown: A thoughtful, somewhat surprising film from Oliver Stone that seeks as much to understand Bush as to villify him.
Score:

Genre: Satirical Biographical Drama
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

17 thoughts on “W.

  1. I see everything

    Thanks for the details, Ken, it was just enough encouragement to put me over the top. Great movies are at a slow trickle so far this fall. This was a good one.
    I am pleased to have seen W. It did give GWB a fair shake, I believe, and does not really pass judgment-that is left to the viewer. Expecting to see Oliver Stone push me in one direction, (JFK style) I was pleasantly surprised. The film was much more balanced than I anticipated, and that made for a better experience. Clearly not chum for the Michael Moore crowd.
    No matter what your politics are, (and please don’t bring them up here people) you have something to like in W. Worth seeing. Thanks again, Ken.

  2. Piffy!

    **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. **

    What made you interpret the dream sequence near the end in that way, Ken?

    I just read it as his anxieties around his father and his own place in the family legacy as he neared the end of his term.

    I was very impressed with the story-line. Stone did a pretty good job of capturing much of the mechanisms behind Bush, in my opinion. It seems like a very insightful look into the mechanisms behind Bush who were really calling the shots in the end.

    The scenes with him in an empty baseball stadium hearing enormous cheers was very poignant.

  3. Ken Hanke

    What made you interpret the dream sequence near the end in that way, Ken?

    It’s not just the dream sequence. It seemed to me that that was what Stone seemed to be putting across.

    The scenes with him in an empty baseball stadium hearing enormous cheers was very poignant.

    I don’t think I could go that far. The fact that the film can almost make me feel sorry for him is about it.

  4. Piffy!

    **It’s not just the dream sequence. It seemed to me that that was what Stone seemed to be putting across. **

    Hmmm. I didnt get that. In fact, I read it the opposite way. That he was scared to death to fail at yet another task…

    **I don’t think I could go that far. The fact that the film can almost make me feel sorry for him is about it. **

    Perhaps I should have written ‘metaphorically impressive’ instead of ‘poignant’. I merely meant that that seemed to represent what i perceived to be his persona–a delusional belief that people were cheering him, and that he was making “the big play”.

    I dont feel *sorry* for him, per se, although he is incredibly pitiful. I think the film did a nice job of showing that “he” is the least of the criminals in his administration, and that to demonize Jr. is to miss the forest for the trees.
    Cheney and Rove being obvious candidates for a forest.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Sorry. These things get away from me sometimes once they’re not immediately visible. (Like I don’t always bail on forum threads, but once they’re off the main page, I forget about them. Also, I can’t find them again. At least I can find the movies.)

    On the point about the reading of the film, I think we simply interpret the film in different ways. You have an advantage in arguing it, though, since I’m assuming you saw it recently when it hit DVD, while I saw it back in October when it came out. There’ve been a lot of movies between then and now, and I can’t say that W. has exactly stuck with me, nor have I been inclined to watch it again.

    I think the film did a nice job of showing that “he” is the least of the criminals in his administration, and that to demonize Jr. is to miss the forest for the trees.

    I’d more or less agree, but I don’t exactly let him off the hook. Even granting the film largely does that, it’s not like he wasn’t there when the words, “There is no exit,” were uttered (according to the film).

  6. Piffy!

    Oh, no, I dont mean to imply he is innocent. Merely that demonizing him actually serves to cloud the issue, and allow those equally complicit be “let off the hook.”

    I think W made a great front-man for the operation in that sense, because he is so easily demonized by the Left. People forget the fundamentals of the issue, and get distracted by the lure of insulting the guy who beat them up in high school.

    And, yes, i just saw it a few weeks ago, and immediately wanted to see what Mr Ken Henke had to say about it.

    Other than the dream sequence, I didnt see any other allusion to your theory, but i’m not all trained in that stuff like you are.

  7. Piffy!

    Just a few more comments and this may become front-page news again!

    How about if I claim you love John Waters?

  8. Ken Hanke

    Mr Ken Henke

    Henke, eh?

    Other than the dream sequence, I didnt see any other allusion to your theory, but i’m not all trained in that stuff like you are

    You’re trying to force me to watch this again, aren’t you?

    How about if I claim you love John Waters?

    Then you’d have to change your name to “The (PFKaNV),” wouldn’t you?

  9. Piffy!

    “Then you’d have to change your name to “The (PFKaNV),” wouldn’t you? ”

    i think you are the only person who realizes what p.f.k.a.p. stands for. or, at least the pfka part.

  10. Finally caught up with this. I felt it suffered from presenting Bush as far too much of a caricature, and didn’t buy any of the scenes where some of his more famous Bushisms were given to him as dialogue in private, but I loved Cromwell, Dreyfuss and Wright.

    I think Rumsfeld probably comes off worse than anyone out of the cast.

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