[16 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How did it happen? How did a man with limited governing skills, a track record of career calamities, a laundry list of personality (and parental) issues, and a jerryrigged jailhouse conversion to Jesus end up as President of the United States? Was Al Gore that dull, John Kerry that tenuous? What, exactly, about the son of a former failed Commander in Chief indicated he was ready for the job, or should have his Constitutional contract renewed for another four years? Were we in need of some post-Clinton jingoism, or a bugf*ck shoulder to shiver on when the bad guys showed up to terrorize us?
Perhaps the bigger question is why? Why a war in Iraq? Why a pro-corporate stance that seems destined to lead to one of the longest and deepest recessions in US history? Why the lack of an exit strategy, a balanced domestic and foreign policy approach, or a smidgen of basic humanity in all the pro-fear, anti-dissent smirks? George W. Bush may not be the worst President in the history of the US, though he seems to be willing to fight for said slot. And outside of his cavalcade of crazed advisors, one senses he may be a decent enough man. This is the angle taken by Oliver Stone in his sensational example of present political theater, W. Turns out, the answers to any and all these questions have their roots in family, not party affiliation.
From the beginning, the young George W. Bush had big shoes to fill. His grandfather was Senator Prescott Bush, and his father was a war hero, a millionaire oil baron, and an eventual Washington mainstay. It was therefore never a question of “if” the boy would follow in his dad’s demanding footsteps, but “how”. This is the dilemma Stone wants to explore, the rise of an expected prodigy that has little ability or capability of complementing his establishing legacy. As the current incarnation of W. discusses the possibility of war with his A-list brain trust, we see the portrait of a disappointment as a young man. Stone avoids certain situations - there’s no cocaine use, National Guard controversy, or in-depth analysis of his bad business acumen. Instead, like a grand opera or studio era Hollywood epic, we watch a boy grow up to be a very incomplete man.
When W. does pop psychology - or perhaps a better term would be “Popi” psychology, considering how much screen time Bush Sr. gets in his son’s story - it’s superficial but fun. Clearly, the standard eldest boy issues apply, as confrontation after confrontation confirms the father/son disconnect. Even better, whenever W. does something and succeeds (as when he wins the Governorship of Texas), all Bush Sr. can think of is how disappointed he is for Jeb (who ran in Florida at the same time, and lost). We get it early and often here - nothing W. did was ever good enough. But then Stone stops feeling sorry for the man and starts explaining the mania behind the mess we are in, and suddenly, the gloves come off.
This is one of the few movies that accurately explains post-modern politics, that is, the notion that a President is only as powerful (or persuasive, or important) as the people he has in his pool of advisors. From Toby Jones’ dead-on Karl Rove to Richard Dreyfus’ bald-headed devil Dick Cheney, we see how a simple ideologue became a crackpot demagogue. With Thandie Newton’s perfectly pinched Condolezza Rice and Scott Glen’s clueless Donald Rumsfeld rounding out the reactionaries, it’s crystal why the US is now a country unnaturally divided. Stone must absolutely adore Colin Powell, however. As flawlessly executed by Jeffrey Wright, the ex-Bush confidant is offered up as the only rationale voice in a din filled with self-satisfied fools.
One of the best things about W. is the casting. Watching dozens of high profile performers sinking their teeth into these roles satisfies on a cinematic level almost unimaginable. Whether its Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, dressing down her cowardly son, or an almost unrecognizable Stacey Keach as smooth talking evangelist Earle Hudd, we are in wonder of the talent on display. Everyone brings their best to the project, but no one is better than Josh Brolin as the flawed Defender of the Free World. You can see the gears clicking off in W.‘s mind the minute he hears something he likes, and the No Country for Old Men star has no problem allowing that inspiration to drive him to distraction. W. is seen as someone who means well, but often finds the wrong path for achieving said aims - or lets others lead him down said boneheaded boulevard.
Brolin does something that’s more sly than a mere impersonation. He takes the elements of the Bush that we know best and finds a way to make them a truly organic part of who the man is. The out of touch reactions to simply suggestions? Something he’s been doing since his time at Yale. The angry confrontations over small, insignificant issues? A reminder of the living room clashes he had with his dad? The smooth talking slickness that resembles a car salesman shilling white slaves? His form of man of the people seduction, from the moment he met his wife to be Laura (a wonderful Elizabeth Banks) to the preparations for his Presidential campaign. Everything we’ve grown to love, hate, admire, and despise about the man is on display and defined.
Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone will enjoy this experience. Revisiting a leader who lost his way early and often, who seemingly betrayed the tenets of his party to protect the powerbase of a bunch of cronies who couldn’t care less about the smaller issues of the nation, may seem like two hours too much for some. No matter the amazing performances, the pain of reality is just too strong. Similarly, Stone doesn’t go for the knockout punch. He’s not out to debate the Bush mythos, but fill in some of the personality gaps. Clearly, the men and women behind the crown get the kind of dressing down reversed for war criminals and sleazy sycophants, but not the king himself. Stone may stray into territories of sympathy, but W. never excuses the man, just explains him…sort of.
All of which winds up as devastating cinematic strutting. W. is evocative and aggravating, as open with its ideas as it is insular about the issues that matter most. It’s the kind of ambiguous account that reflects an audience’s reaction as much as a filmmaker’s feelings. When it was announced, many familiar with Stone’s motives imagined a fiery satire, a Dr. Strangelove for the Patriot Act era. Instead, this is genealogy gone gangrenous, a look at royals in ruins similar to the predictable period pieces that come out of England every now and again. W. may not deliver the answers to the many questions the current administration stirs, but it’s so much fun following along Bush’s bell curve that we can’t help but enjoy the downward spiral. Oliver Stone has fashioned a fair and balanced distillation of how George W. Bush became President. The ‘why’ one imagines, will have to wait for another day.