October 19, 2008 -- Oliver Stone's biographical drama of George W. Bush, titled simply “W” is surprisingly sympathetic in its portrayal of a president who is currently hated by the public even more than Nixon was at his nadir. It is a story of a battered and belittled man, a disappointment to his famous parents who liked his brother Jed better. It reminded me of the old Smothers Brothers routine about sibling rivalry. It is also a story of a man who had the willpower to raise himself up out of self-loathing and despair to be president of the most powerful country in the world. It should have been a fascinating movie, but instead it meanders along in a kind of flat, tired confused muddle. Nevertheless, I give it a marginal recommendation due to some excellent acting talent and political insights.
Josh Brolin of “No Country for Old Men” stars as George W. Bush. It is a terrific performance in a string of great performances in recent months, including his turn in “In the Valley of Elah.” Brolin here plays a man who isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's got plenty of ambition and willpower. With the help of religion, Bush overcomes his drinking and drug addictions and with the help of political wonk Karl Rove (played by Toby Jones of “The Painted Veil” who has an uncanny resemblance to Rove) he gets on the fast track to the White House.
On the one hand, the movie is about a man who is the perfect example of the Peter Principle, a man who rapidly rises to the level of his incompetence (and beyond it). On the other hand, it is a story of a man who faces his demons and defeats them. In a poignant dream sequence early in the film, Bush finds himself in a baseball stadium, ready to catch a fly ball at the fence. He leaps and catches it, saving the country in his own mind. Near the end of his presidency, Bush dreams he's back in the ball park, he goes to the fence and looks up, but the ball has vanished. He looks for it everywhere. He can't make a play. He's run out of options and out of political capital. Game over.
There are a number of fine performances in the film, including James Cromwell of “The Queen” as George Herbert Walker Bush and Ellen Burstyn of “The Fountain” as his wife, Barbara Bush. Richard Dreyfuss of “Poseidon” plays Dick Cheney. He looks and sounds a lot like Cheney (a man I've interviewed on more than one occasion). Stacy Keach of the “Prison Break” TV show turns in a good performance as a preacher, Earle Hudd, who counseled Bush when he was plagued by the demons of drug addiction. Thandie Newton of “The Pursuit of Happyness” turns in a good performance of Condoleezza Rice. Bruce McGill of “Vantage Point” plays CIA director George Tenet. McGill has made a career of playing high government officials. In “The Sum of All Fears” he teamed with James Cromwell again. Cromwell played the president in that movie (as he does in part of “W”) and McGill played the national security advisor, which Thandie Newton played in “W.” Jason Ritter plays the president's brother, Jeb Bush.
While the film is a bit flat and lifeless, I think it does provide some valuable insights into George Bush and the reasons behind his tragic decision to invade Iraq in a “preemptive” war. Was it a case of colossal overcompensation for the disapproval of his father and his earlier failures in life? Was it a case of manipulation by schemers like Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn). Was Iraq attacked because Bush felt his father had failed by not finishing off Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War? Did Bush really think he could force Democracy to spread in the Middle East by attacking Iraq? The movie provides hints, but no strong arguments as to why this decision was made, but it does make a strong argument that Bush himself was unaware that Iraq lacked the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to be there. The WMDs, of course, were the main argument for going to war in the first place. Jeffrey Wright of “The Invasion” has some of the best speeches in the movie as Colin Powell, warning of impending Iraq political policy and military strategy failures. It is no surprise that Powell, used and abused by the Bush administration, has now gotten a measure of revenge by endorsing Barack Obama for president.
As some critics have pointed out before, Oliver Stone's movies (including “Nixon” and “JFK”) age well. It will be interesting for historians to look at this film 50 years in the future to see how it holds up then, when history has formed a consensus on the Bush presidency. It is pretty certain to be viewed as a failure, one of the most spectacular failures in political history, but what led to all those wrongheaded decisions? Maybe historians will have figured out some of those puzzles when all of the political insider's books have been written. As for now, it is pretty apparent that the Bush presidency marked the obvious beginning of the decline of the American Empire which had reached its zenith in the 1960s. At the beginning of the new millenium, few could have imagined how far the empire would fall in just seven short years. We've always been hated and despised for our power and our imperialistic tendencies, but now we are a laughingstock and we are even pitied, and that is something new. George W. Bush was in the heart of that transformation. This film rates a C+.
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