Movie Review – W (2008)
Love him, hate him. Adore him, despise him. No matter what you may think of America’s 43rd President there is no doubt that he has become one of the greatest polarizing figures in contemporary world history. Oliver Stone, no stranger to political movies, has taken it upon himself the unenviable and unheard of task of creating and releasing a biographical portrait of a then sitting President.
Coming from a liberal swinging artist his version of George W. Bush comes off as remarkably evenhanded almost sympathetic. This is not to say that Bush is shown to be a good President as he’s constantly befuddled and constantly defers to his closest advisors who manage to sow the seeds of manipulation feeding on the President’s ego and convictions for their own ends.
To be frank, releasing a biographical look at such a current figure takes some getting use to. Without the element of hindsight or significant passage of time it is sometimes uneasy to not let personal biases creep into tainting what Stone is trying to show. This is not a film made to sway Liberals to liking Bush nor will diehard Conservatives approve of the way that Bush and his hawks are portrayed as near tyrants. Stone, in an unusual move, decides to take a decidedly middle path and neither skewers nor praises anything that occurs. This is incredibly odd as Stone’s previous political movies such as JFK, Nixon and even Alexander showcase the director’s strong personal opinions and prejudices.
Told in a series of flashbacks the movie alternates between Bush’s past and the “present” where he and his team are planning the invasion of Iraq. Much of what happens as it applies to Iraq has been well documented and Stone let’s these events play out as they happened with one particularly biting and ultimately frightening sequence where Bush and his senior staff are gathered in a war room to go over the evidence that ultimately leads them to war. Stone takes full aim and pulls no punches as to who he feels is to blame for this decision as Bush’s hawks which include Vice President Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton) come off as near zealots who present a case of Pax Americana in an effort to extend the American Empire.
Richard Dreyfuss absolutely embodies Cheney and his performance here is chilling as he lays out a plan of basic world domination to those in attendance that even prompts Bush to tell him to stop talking since he is frightening him. Cheney nonchalantly replies to him that that is why he isn’t talking to the public and that it is Bush’s oratory skill that is needed to sell the war. Yet what Cheney and Rumsfeld do is a classic exploitation of Bush’s simple belief that good will triumph over evil and that since America is virtuous that history will vindicate them.
It is also interesting to note that all the while this is going on the only voice of reason in the room is Colin Powell (Jeffrey Hunter) who constantly calls into question the morality of the intended invasion but he’s the lone dove in a sea of hawks here and even Bush doesn’t listen as everyone of his staff drowns the poor general out. We’ll never know for sure what exactly was said during these closed meetings but the way in which the subject matter is approached, if true, is both enlightening and downright chilling.
Although the Iraq invasion will forever be the most prominent issue in regards to his presidency some of the film’s more enlightening scenes showcase Bush in his early years starting from his time in Yale to his work on oil rigs, his eventual first meeting with his soon to be wife Laura and his time managing a baseball team. What becomes apparent through all these disparate instances in his life is a man trying to find himself who carries a constant crushing weight on his shoulders for always being at odds with his father. The film takes great pains in postulating that W spent most of his life trying to please a father who more often than not saw his son as a good for nothing underachiever and placed all his hopes instead on his other son Jeb.
Whether or not this is true is up for debate but as presented by Stone it affects Bush so much that it clouds his judgment so much so that he barrels headlong into Iraq almost as if the real reason for his action was merely to prove that his dad made a mistake in not taking Saddam out during Desert Storm.
W, as played brilliantly by last minute replacement Josh Brolin who was basically parachuted into the role because Christian Bale abruptly left the production, mimics Bush’s mannerisms and facial expressions well enough yet also correctly nails his enormous charm and easy going attitude. It is incredibly hard to separate one’s vision of the real W as he is now from what he used to be since everyone knows how his presidency worked out but rewind the years a bit and Stone correctly recognizes the characteristics that made W an effective politician. Simply put, he connected with many citizens through down to earth charm that made him seem like the guy from next door who would make a fun drinking partner.
With his dismal approval ratings at the end of his presidency people seem to forget just how quickly he skyrocketed to political fame that surprised even his parents who actually were against him running thinking it would take the spotlight off Jeb – not to mention the film has his mother basically laughing and proclaiming that he would never win. Instead, W ran for Governor of Texas and beat long time political giant Ann Richards by a clear margin even though she outspent him by over 20% and subsequently won his re-election bid a few years later by garnering almost 70% of all votes. Clearly there were a large number of voters who connected to his easy going style.
Alcohol played a huge impact on Bush’s early days and Stone depicts this period showing him always pulling back a cold one. There’s rarely a scene where W doesn’t drink and it shows with his drunken exuberance that even begins to irritate Laura. As the story goes he did manage to kick his habit, join AA and then found religion. Politicians nearly all say they are men of faith but W is one of those cases where it is more than lip service. The transition between his drunken years and his embracing of religion are telling but as the viewer knows this didn’t exactly help him govern.
Whatever legacy is written of W will be left to future historians to contemplate. Since Stone is content to just show facts and events that helped shape Bush into who he became and doesn’t brow beat any sort of opinion it is ultimately left to the viewer to decide for themselves. As mentioned earlier this is a nigh impossible task since it has barely been a few months since President Obama has taken over. Whatever strong opinions one has of the 43rd president will undoubtedly hold sway no matter what Stone throws onto the silver screen.
This ultimately affects some of the performances here especially from the supporting characters that sometimes come off as caricatures that feel ripped from comedy sketches. Clearly these actors are not trying to be funny but they mimic their real life counterparts so well you almost expect Tina Fey just to pop up for no reason pretending to be Sarah Palin while shouting a welcome to Saturday Night Live. Perhaps the biggest offender is Thandie Newton who actually does go a bit too far into over exaggeration constantly twitching her head and making Condoleeza Rice seem overly spastic.
The film, though strangely marketed as a comedy, is anything but and humour is actually kept to a minimum. Instead of his usual tendencies to utilize numerous film formats with many different cameras sometimes within the same scene, this movie is somewhat prosaically shot without much visual élan. Though things move at a quick pace the overall structure is totally devoid of any sense of physical or internal conflict which culminates in a very melodramatic and ill placed dream sequence that features older Bush berating his son in the oval office that comes off as something you’d expect to see on daytime soaps.
Stone also attempts to use W’s love for baseball as a metaphor for his emotional state to less than subtle results making these short scenes of Bush playing ball by himself in an empty stadium all together futile especially as the film closes abruptly on a shot of Bush attempting to catch a ball when he suddenly realizes that the ball has disappeared. It reminded me of about the only sequence that I didn’t like in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed where he finished the film with an incredibly obvious and groan worthy shot of rats. Symbolism in film is an age old art form but this overt, in your face, imagery is not needed and comes as a detriment from such great directors.
Bush has stated that he never thought himself as an intellectual and had a somewhat negative view on what he thought were elitist thinkers. Still, what is presented here by Stone paints a simple picture of a very simple man. He is not evil incarnate wielding a pitchfork and laughing maniacally nor is he a saint or grand protector of the American way of life. In the end he is merely a man with all the vices and virtues that befall the entire race. What is clear from Stone comes down to one simple point that although he seemed to make decisions with genuine conviction of faith that it didn’t necessarily translate to being a good President. Watching nearly all members of his staff maneuver and play him like an accordion and his subsequent cluelessness at this turns him into a fallen figure that would easily find his place in a Shakespearean tragedy.
The film does use many Bushisms and odd phrases that really were spoken by the president but none stick out more than the one uttered by him during the film’s denouement as he’s giving a press conference. One of the reporters asks him bluntly how he thinks history will judge him. Flustered he hems and haws uncomfortably before answering, “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” Words of wisdom indeed.
*** out of ****
2008, 129 minutes, PG-13, Lionsgate
Directed by Oliver Stone
Producer: Bill Block, Moritz Borman, Paul Hanson, Eric Kopeloff
Executive Producer: Teresa Cheung, Elliot Ferwerda, Peter D. Graves, Johnny Hon, Christopher Mapp, Tom Ortenberg, Thomas Sterchi, Matthew Street, David Whealy, Albert Yeung
Screenplay by Stanley Weiser
Original Music by Paul Cantelon
Cinematography by Phedon Papamichael
Film Editing by Joe Hutshing & Julie Monroe
George W. Bush: Josh Brolin
Laura Bush: Elizabeth Banks
Dick Cheney: Richard Dreyfuss
Karl Rove: Toby Jones
George Tenet: Bruce McGill
Condoleezza Rice: Thandie Newton
Gen. Colin Powell: Jeffrey Wright
George H. W. Bush: James Cromwell
Barbara Bush: Ellen Burstyn
Ari Fleischer: Rob Corddry
Texas Debate Moderator: David Born
Paul Wolfowitz: Dennis Boutsikaris
Odessa Debate Patron: Bruce Bryant
Asian Journalist ‘Miss China’: Teresa Cheung
Campaign Aide: Jon Michael Davis
Gen. Tommy Franks: Michael Gaston
Josiah Pringle: Jeff Gibbs
Donald Rumsfeld: Scott Glenn
Tony Blair: Ioan Gruffudd
Saddam Hussein: Sayed Badreya
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