FISH: 'W.' A SURPRISINGLY SENSITIVE PORTRAIT OF BUSH
by Mike Fisher
Tue, Oct 21, 2008, 12:43 PM
George W. Bush, blue-jeaned and sleeves-rolled-up, marches across his Crawford, Texas, property on a sort of nature hike, formulating world-changing policy while a brigade of his braintrust – “Vice,’’ “Rummy,’’ “Girl,’’ “Genius Boy’’ and the rest of the Dubya-nicknamed lieutenants – dutifully march along. A fateful conclusion is reached, and then the president suddenly halts – and realizes he’s missed the proper turn on the path.
It is one of dozens of scenes in Oliver Stone’s “W.’’ that is deep-fried in simple-minded metaphor. But this engrossing film, which feels like a living history lesson in the form of pop-art deconstruction of the frat-boy/cowboy prez, works on many levels, not the least of which is that its simplicity will allow its title subject to understand it.
Against all odds, Stone – the infamously liberal auteur responsible for the presidential biopics “JFK’’ and “Nixon’’ – paints a sympathetic portrait of “Junior.’’ The movie marries tragic real events with Bush’s ridiculous real public pronouncements (re-imagining them being said in the privacy of bedroom and war room) and mixes them with what Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser assume to be George’s innermost motivations.
In the movie’s mind, “Dubya’’ has Oedipal issues with his powerful father, jealousy issues with his accomplished brother, drinking issues with Jack Daniels, commitment issues with the jobs that his family name allows him to get, intellectual issues that cause his mother to express disbelieving shock when he announces he wants to be governor of Texas, and more intellectual issues that cause “Poppy’’ to firmly inform his son that he ought to remain in the comfortable cocoon that is the overseeing of the Texas Rangers.
“Stay out of the barrel, son,’’ says the father, in the sort of tone a dad might use to tell a blind infant to avoid crossing a busy street.
“W.’’ isn’t just about the War in Iraq (the futility of war being one of Stone’s go-to subjects) and it isn’t just about a failed presidency. While Bush may not be a complex man – after losing an early bid for Congress, he angrily vows, “There’s no way I’ll ever be out-Texased or out-Christianed again’’ – he’s led a complex life. Stone smartly illustrates that by bouncing back and forth between Dubya’s wayward years to his White House years. It is stunning to watch the charming single-minded goofball in his 20’s (his single-mindedness first devoted to stuff like playing cards, memorizing frat brothers’ names and womanizing) flatline his way to being a charming single-minded goofball in his 50’s (his single-mindedness now devoted to faith, out-John-Wayne’ing his father and being in bed in time to watch “Sports Cap.’’)
President Bush is portrayed humanely as a patriot, albeit an overzealous one, a misguided one, and a befuddled one. “All I wanted to do,’’ Dubya says mournfully, “is make it a better and safer world.’’ The moviegoer believes it; so do two puppeteers who play on it, plus his Don’t-Mess-With-Texas/America-Is-Blessed sentiments, to achieve their personal goals.
The first is “Genius Boy’’ Karl Rove (played by a simpering Toby Jones, who early on in Bush’s career figures out a way to re-package George’s family name and folksy likeability into political viability. “I'm just a fairy spreading fairy dust all over you,” Rove tells the candidate. (Sidebar: When the conscience-free Karl Rove gets hold of Sarah Palin – and I bet he will – she will quite likely springboard from a woman with the qualifications to host “Good Morning, Juneau’’ to a woman who sounds Presidential. You watch.)
The other puppeteer is the villain of the film, and quite possibly the villain of American politics for three decades, is dangerously hawkish Dick Cheney. In a war room meeting with Bush’s staff of advisers, Richard Dreyfuss as the Machiavellian Vice President slyly guides a caring conversation about democracy in the Middle East to a crass one about oil in the Middle East. There is a barked mention of how America will never be messed with again (which Bush and the movie audience hears. … and it’s an alluring point). There is a mumbled mention of the word “Halliburton’’ (which Bush maybe does not hear, and the movie audience will have to lean toward the screen to hear. … and it’s a haunting point). At the end of the meeting, Cheney is asked about an “exit strategy.’’
Cheney’s chilling answer: “There is no exit. We stay.”
(Sidebar: Did Cheney really say that? This is an Oliver Stone movie, not a history book. So I assume not. At the same time. … here were are, almost five years after “Mission Accomplished.’’ So it certainly feels like “no exit.’’ And the words or thoughts assigned to Cheney seem more plausible by the month.)
And Dubya – with the opportunity to accomplish in the desert “cesspool’’ what his unappreciative father could not, the opportunity illustrated all purty in red, white and blue up there simplistically on the overhead projector -- is sold.
He ignores the conscience of the film, Gen. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), whose pleas for “patience’’ and “diplomacy’’ are laughed at and shouted down by the rest of the Bush staff. (Little wonder, watching this film, while the real-life Powell has broken with his party and decided The White House needs a different direction.) And eventually, Powell himself wobbles into the gray area that justifies the war, appearing before the United Nations presenting his dubious evidence to justify war.
Stone was probably tempted to do political satire here. But using Bush’s own actual words against him works better in that it creates a Greek tragicomedy founded in reality. It’s Greek. … but it’s also Texan. Lone Star Staters will appreciate the scenery (Bush’s dreams/nightmares take place in centerfield of old Arlington Stadium) and the music (Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, Gene Autry and “The Yellow Rose of Texas’’) and the food (Dubya eats a lot of ham-on-Wonder bread sandwiches washed down with Dr Pepper; the henchmen on his staff coolly eat pie while Iraq burns).
For Texans concerned about the accents and such: Dead-on, y’all. George and Barbara, played haughtily by James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn, are equal parts Houston and New England; they are people of privilege outraged that Clinton is considered their equal. Elizabeth Banks morphs from pin-up girl to librarian Laura in impressive fashion, and completely sells why this smart girl would fall for a boy who never noticed her in middle school because she wasn’t a cheerleader. Stacy Keach steals his few scenes as a charismatic Billy Graham-like preacherman who guides George to being born-again. Thandie Newton as Condi Rice isn’t given much to do except answer George’s phone. Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld is undercooked, too, though maybe when Rummy says, “I don’t do nuance,’’ he says it all.
Most of all there is Josh Brolin, who knows something of ranch living and of following in the large footsteps of a famous father. Brolin is brilliant. When he is grotesque, it’s because Bush was grotesque. When he worries about the post-Presidency wrinkles in his forehead, it’s because Bush worries (as we all do). Brolin never mocks the President; from the macho silliness of his Yale fraternity to his desire to fistfight his father to a final scene back in Rangers centerfield, he delivers a true tenderness to almost every shot.
How can you fault “W.’’ for letting us watch George choke on a pretzel, for him confusing “Guantánamo’’ with “Guantanamera,’’ with inventing words like “misunderestimated,’’ with suggesting the biggest error of his life was trading Sammy Sosa, when all those twisted occurrences actually occurred? How do you parody “Mission Accomplished’’ more than it parodies itself?
You really do end up feeling sorry for George W. Bush. What if he’d just stayed in Midland in the oil business? What if Laura’s love of education had driven the couple to different goals? What if he really had been allowed to fuddle along as a baseball executive? What if his pedigree, his money, his connections – or, rather, 200 years of Bush family connections – hadn’t made political ambitions a foregone conclusion?
At one point, after another drunken Dubya episode, Father tells Son, “What do you think you are, a Kennedy? You’re a Bush!’’
Amid the obvious metaphors and the simplistic similes, amid the temptation to be nasty and attacking, Stone and his movie obviously feel that is statement enough.
He’s a Bush. That is polarizing enough, and happily, it means the film needn’t be.