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The Man Who Wasn't There: Wrestling with Oliver Stone's W. and the Enigma of George W. Bush

Stone doesn't "get" Bush’s true historical legacy (any more than the rest of us do in 2008), but he cannily realizes that, warts and all, Bush is an undeniably pivotal figure.


Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Ioan Gruffudd, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright, Jason Ritter, Toby Jones
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lionsgate
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-11-07 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2008-10-17 (Limited release)

Perhaps I’m simply unoriginal when it comes to this sort of thing, but, like my piece last year arguing the case for Britney Spears, I briefly considered titling this one “In Defense of W.”.

But then I balked.

One doesn’t want readers to get the wrong idea, you know? Oliver Stone’s latest effort is largely defensible, but – really – is George W. Bush? (That’s mostly a rhetorical question.) Besides, a defense of Bush isn’t what Stone’s after either. His film is “sympathetic” insofar as it concedes that Bush is, in fact, a human being – who likes sports and country music and has some family issues – and it’s “critical” insofar as it re-enacts, or alludes to, Bush’s greatest misses, from his notoriously less-than-impressive pre-political career to the on-going quagmire in Iraq.

Ultimately, though, Stone is after something considerably more elusive than sympathy or criticism; who exactly is this guy anyway, he asks, and, implicitly, why should we care? The obvious answer to that second point is: Because, for most of the past decade, he’s served as one of the most powerful individuals on the planet. Yet that’s not quite enough, is it? No one wants to sit through a two hour biopic of, say, Gerald Ford. Nearing the end of the Bush Era, the man is at least as morbidly fascinating as he is contemptible to many people largely because, for a figure who addresses the public in folksy “straight talk”, he remains remarkably elusive.

Sure, lots of people think they know lots of things about George W. Bush – and they do: born in Connecticut, raised in Texas, attended Yale and Harvard Business, tried his hand at the oil and baseball businesses, ran for governor, etc. All of these events, and many more you’re no doubt sufficiently familiar with, appear in W.. In fact, the film is so jam-packed with quintessential Bush moments and lines (“misunderestimated”, “fool me once…”, “is our children learning”?) that, on paper, it begs the question: why bother?

That’s the inherent problem with attempting to plumb the very recent past for historical insights; it’s all too fresh. Hindsight isn’t yet 20/20. We know all the steps. It’s still personal. This isn’t the Kennedy assassination or Vietnam or Watergate: these are yesterday’s headlines.

But Stone has an interesting trick up his sleeve: He works from the outside-in. From the events he opts to narrow his focus on to the film’s elliptical structure to the performances (which range from passable to masterful), he uses familiarity to his advantage, investigating what makes Bush tick and how he managed to get from Point A (booze, womanizing, Texas) to Point B (the White House). Like Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison in JFK, Stone is after The Truth, a lofty idea that only gets murkier and further from reach as his non-chronological narrative progresses.

The closest W. comes to clarity per se is in a few scenes depicting Bush praying – scenes set to serene-sounding music, imbued with palpable respect. The director seems to realize that his mission – once and for all revealing the Real George W. Bush – would be doomed from the outset unless he takes at more or less face value Bush’s professed faith. While the potential for political gain that comes with Bush’s born-again status is naturally acknowledged (“I’ll never be out-Texan’d or out-Christian’d again,” Josh Brolin’s Bush swears following an early defeat), his sense of religious conviction isn’t questioned. Rather, Stone uses it, along with Dubya’s love/hate relationship with President Poppy, as a launching point for tracing Bush’s adult evolution.

W. is, first and foremost, a character study, and that’s where its principal value – artistic, historical, or otherwise – lies. If Stone had intended to fashion a full-bodied polemic against the Bush administration, then, well, the end-result is pretty toothless. However deserving such an acid valentine may yet be, that’s almost shooting fish in a barrel at this point, and besides, most of the film’s best knocks on Bush are cribbed directly from the Michael Moore playbook – cutting, for instance, from the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech delivered by Bush aboard an aircraft carrier to a sequence evidencing the far from peaceful climate in Iraq.

Stone doesn’t “get” Bush’s true historical legacy (any more than the rest of us do in 2008), but he cannily realizes that, warts and all, Bush is an undeniably pivotal figure, and that we’re more likely to get a handle on him, and what he represents, through something like empathy than through dialogue-neutering condescension.

Despite public opinion and Stone’s predilection toward fallen giants, George Bush is not Richard Nixon. Valid points of comparison are there, to be sure, but to overstretch the analogy is to conveniently overlook the radical transformations in American politics and culture that have occurred over the past four decades. You’d have to ignore Iran Contra, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Clinton Years, and September 11, 2001.

Speaking of which, the attacks on the Twin Towers – the focal point of Stone’s previous film – is mostly averted in W.. It’s discussed by Bush and his brain trust, and the seismic subsequent shift in national mood is present in every post-9/11-set frame. But the film doesn’t “go there”, partly (presumably) because Stone already did and (more importantly) because Bush wasn’t there and, contrary to the half-baked plots cooked up by amateur conspiracy theorists (who Stone thankfully and somewhat surprisingly has the good sense to eschew dignifying), Bush had nothing to do with the attacks themselves. Instead, we get the aftermath – muddled, certainly dubious, painful to relive yet absolutely engrossing to watch on screen.

These scenes – featuring Bush’s inner circle of Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz, Rice, and sometimes Tenet and Franks – are the movie’s most effective and most memorable. It’s here where Stone and his cast execute their master stroke. Where most biopics rely on ostensible behind-the-scenes epiphanies for revelations of character (such moments in W. mostly fall flat, such as a ponderous dream sequence wherein the senior Bush tries to pick a fight with junior in the Oval Office), Stone finds new truths in the most recognizable of personality traits: Bush’s constant nervous tics and noticeably fluid facial expressions (seemingly suggesting that what he’s talking about and what’s on his mind aren’t necessarily one in the same), Condoleezza Rice’s peculiar speech cadences and shrill, sycophantic tone (flawlessly captured by Thandie Newton), the way Dick Cheney’s (an equally spot-on Richard Dreyfuss) perma-scowl and totally transparent faux-deference to the president register as perverse and vaguely menacing. Bush, by contrast, at least comes across as more discernibly human.

The effect of gleaning insight from such details, from resurrecting recent history in such vivid form, is more than a little surreal, and, yes, at times, inadvertently comic. Yet rather than either the Shakespearean tragic dimensions of Nixon or the funny but one-dimensional satire of a Saturday Night Live sketch, W. feels closest in spirit to the Coen Brothers – specifically their latest, Burn After Reading, another look at bumbling government employees and wanna-be outsiders making poorly thought-out decisions that quickly spiral dangerously out of control.

This all leads us, of course, to the present moment. By the time this article goes live, there will be a new president-elect, a new chapter in history on the verge of taking shape. The only problem is that the last installment is far from over; its imprint is evident everywhere, from Iraq to the tanking economy to America’s abysmal environmental record and black sheep status in the global community. W. doesn’t finally answer the question of who George W. Bush is any more than JFK revealed the rock-solid truth behind the Kennedy assassination, but it tantalizingly suggests the possibility that, with more time and more would-be historians willing to think outside the frame, we might yet come to know.

This is crucially important because to understand who Bush is, or what Bush means, is to understand what the United States means in the 21st century, or has meant thus far anyway. Only then, can America move on – and be something else.

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