Reconsidering 'W.' (2008)
Ben Travers takes a look back at Stone’s wacky vision of the most hated American president in recent memory.
W., director Oliver Stone’s biography of President George W. Bush, received quite a bit of buzz leading up to its late 2008 release. After all, the shoot and post-production for Stone’s third film dealing with a U.S. president were done in a matter of months to create an air of immediacy around a film centering on a sitting (though soon departing) president.
Stone actually went on the record saying he rushed the film into an October release in the hope it would change a few minds. Whether it did or not we may never know, but judging it as a stand-alone piece raises plenty of other pertinent questions.
For one, why did Stone make the film at all? When W. was released a few weeks before election day, the president’s approval ratings were in the toilet and he was about to drift into infamy. The film’s trailer portrayed it as a silly satire with look-a-like actors cast to play up each of their characters’ most notorious flaws. It was an abrupt change of pace for a director who’s past looks at presidents (JFK in 1991 and Nixon in 1995) were as dark and dour as dramas come, but it also starkly contrasted Stone’s last film, the straight-faced melodrama World Trade Center.
W. immediately caught fire from critics who seemed especially turned off by Thandie Newton’s tight-faced portrayal of Condoleezza Rice (PopMatters own Cynthia Fuchs, however, called the performance “creepily pitch perfect” in the film’s original review). Others seemed disappointed in the film’s lack of satiric edge. With so many well-publicized travesties during his eight years in office, many felt Stone was a little soft on the much-maligned commander-in-chief. Even the left-leaning Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers said the movie “comes perilously close to being W. for Dummies.” Though it had its share of supporters, W. was as quickly dismissed as it was made.
Yet, looking back on it now, W. seems surprisingly relevant. It stands as a surprisingly entertaining historical landmark of a time everyone would assuredly rather forget. What may have appeared to be a broad overview at the time seems like a gentle reminder today. We see plenty of the Bush back story, including lots of juicy interactions with Bush Sr, but the lowlights of the presidency are present as well. The mission accomplished speech. The lack of WMDs. The near-fatal pretzel. The appearance of each brings back a dearth of memories more powerful than any precise reenactment.
The only occasion missing is 9/11. What seems like an obvious, presidency-defining moment to include was most likely left out for two reasons: Stone had just made a tribute to the events of that day in World Trade Center, and he probably found it impossible to break up the comedic tone of W. by including an event completely absent of levity. It seems glaring when pointed out post-viewing, but the film’s flashback structure keeps it moving forward without questions.
The composition also helps paint the president in a shockingly harsh light. What first appears to be empathy turns nasty by the film’s final scene. Instead of critiquing Bush Jr. in a more commercially appealing light (the anticipated SNL skit style jabs), Stone lets our own decisions sink in throughout – how could we have elected such a spoiled, confused doofus (twice)?