October 23, 2008
Oliver Stone presents the life and times of our 43rd president in W., a strange but entertaining comedy-ish movie about George W. Bush.
Poor George (Josh Brolin), with his disapproving parents — George H.W. “Poppy” Bush (James Cromwell) and Barbara (Ellyn Burstyn) — and his lack of natural talent for things that might lead him to a respectable career. He carouses his way through life, very much a C student at everything from college to his first run for Congress to a string of jobs that fail to motivate him. Perhaps his only early-adult-life success was in marrying Laura (Elizabeth Banks), a librarian and a Democrat who spends the first scenes of their marriage smiling patiently at his bumblings and worriedly eyeing his liquor consumption.
Then George finds God, stops the drinking, eventually runs for governor and then becomes president. Of course, this is less the “you have arrived” moment for our George and more the top of the roller coaster ride. The movie flashes back to these portrait-of-a-president-as-a-young-man scenes from the movie’s present-time run-up to the Iraq War through the post-“Mission Accomplished” meltdown. In those scenes we meet a war-hungry Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), a true-believer-ish Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), a somewhat unbalanced-seeming Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), a surprisingly sycophantic Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and a defeated Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright).
Through it all, what makes George W. tick? That seems to be the question this movie asks. I said the movie was “comedy-ish” and, while it’s not a satire, it is funny — mostly, I think, intentionally — and not just in a kind of cheap “is our children learning” kind of way.
Strip away your personal feelings and the politics and history, and this is basically a story about a son trying to win his father’s affections even at the peril of ultimately destroying his own career. What led Bush (who squirms at being called “Jr.” through the first two thirds of his biography) to go to Iraq? The movie suggests that it was a combination of an overeager Cheney, a deeply misinformed intelligence agency and Bush’s own desire to get the guy who messed with his dad (and whom his dad failled to get himself).
So how much of this is fact, how much is Stone’s analysis and how much is straight-up nonsense? I’ll leave it to someone else to fact-check a two-hour movie. But I will say that this is not a movie full of wild conspiracy and great leaps of supposition. With the exception of a few minor details about his early life, there’s nothing here I haven’t heard elsewhere before. The movie is a rough sketch of the people and incidents in Bush’s life. Thusly, we get not the puppetmaster Rove image that has been created over the years but a handler with suck-up tendencies that get on the nerves of the serious Colin Powell, who seems here entertainingly on the verge of getting in a fist fight with Rove or Cheney or both. Rice seems like Bush’s office wife, smoothing over his rough edges and sticking up for him when, for example, Brent Scowcroft writes an op-ed against the invasion of Iraq. And then there’s George H.W. Bush, who shows up to smack down his son’s ego when it gets too big.
Is this really how it is? I’m sure some shade of this is some degree of true. Much like the book American Wife’s guestimate about the inner life of a Laura-Bush-type woman, W. presents Stone’s reading of the situation — it probably hits in some places to some degree about some things and misses in others. (And, maybe because of the rush to get the movie out while Bush is still president, Stone didn’t add many Stonian touches. He keeps the dream-sequence, visual-representation-of-Bush’s-psyche stuff turned to the level of background noise.) But for all its artistic and possible factual faults, it’s still an entertaining movie to watch. And for that, the praise goes in large part to Brolin, who not only tries to “get” Bush but also appears to crawl into his head enought not to turn in a Saturday Night Live skit version of Bush. He doesn’t have the mannerisms and the voice of Will Ferrell’s W. but he has much more of a personality. Once upon a time, lots of people who saw George W. Bush on TV liked him — liked him a lot — and Brolin does attempt to find that guy.
Perhaps because there isn’t yet a true final act to this story, W. stops more than ends. It feels like it’s missing the punchline, the thing that would tie the loosely flapping threads of this mix of American optimism and Greek tragedy together. W. is not a documentary or a political rant but it is a weirdly interesting quick pencil sketch of our very recent history. B-
Rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images. Directed by Oliver Stone and written by Stanley Weiser, W. is an hour and 50 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.