Thursday, October 23, 2008
I wish I had been in the room when Oliver Stone announced he was making a biopic on George W. Bush and that the goal of it was not to demonize him, if for no other reason than to see if his pants caught fire. Of all the insufferable celebrities who use every moment of press to give us their unwanted political opinions, Stone is up there with the worst. The fact that he started shooting the movie in May and made sure he released it before the election didn’t inspire much confidence either. Then again, his two previous films about presidents or events directly concerning them, “JFK” and “Nixon,” were bold, revisionist, even-handed dramas, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Surprisingly, he made a pretty great film.
“W.” chronicles the President’s life from his early days at Yale to shortly before his second presidential election. The film is structured out of chronological order, preferring instead to show the growth of W. as a person and to draw parallels. When Vice President Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) convinces Bush to approve “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the President calls to mind his fraternity initiation, in which he and other pledges sat in a tub of ice water while being force-fed alcohol and generally disoriented.
As with Stone’s previous presidential dramas, “W.” often returns to a theme in the form of an obsession of the protagonist. In “JFK,” it was Garrison’s attempt to prosecute Clay Shaw seemingly because of his homosexuality. In “Nixon,” it was the juxtaposition of Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Here, the defining conflict Bush’s relationship with his father; Junior wants to escape his father’s shadow, but only gets jobs and diplomas on his family name. Even as president, his decisions on Iraq must inevitably be compared to Poppy’s. Junior’s desire to measure up to his family name drives his life; in his youth, he drinks and blows off multiple jobs just to frustrate his father. Even when he runs for Congress, it’s more to prove that he can than an attempt to get into politics.
The turning point in W.’s life is his cold turkey sobriety and his Born Again Christianity. These events save his life, but they also shape his attitude as President. Recovered addicts and Born Again Christians fundamentally believe in a clean slate. The term itself, “born again,” denotes a rebirth, resetting the clock to year zero. They acknowledge the past but must not dwell on it. This psyche might explain why he has stuck by so many bad decisions over his tenure.
Stone has always been a director capable of handling a large cast, and for the most part he succeeds here. Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush- who doubles as the film’s conscience- as a supportive, loving woman who reassures her husband even as she chastises him. Jeffrey Wright and Dreyfuss are likewise marvelous, with Wright capturing Colin Powell’s cautious wisdom while Dreyfuss embodying Cheney. Stone draws a parallel between Powell and Cheney; both are men who speak their mind and know their business, but Powell knows the human costs and expresses hesitance while the disconnected Cheney pushes for war in Iraq to open up oil lines. Toby Jones and Scott Glenn play Rove and Rumsfeld as one-note villains who show no consideration for the consequences of their actions. The worst is Thandie Newton’s absurd portrayal of Condoleeza Rice as a screen-mugging parody. Her presence alone hurts Stone’s claim that this isn’t some joke.
Surprisingly, the film portrays Bush sympathetically. Stone paints him as a good man who, though not necessarily simple, is easily manipulated by advisors into the public face of their machinations. What the film lacks in historical perspective, it makes up for with a human element; Bush genuinely believes he is doing God’s work and, as such, cannot question his own decisions. By stopping the film’s timeline in 2004, it avoids the extremities of the Bush administration’s failures and thus is able to make these people seem more relatable, or at least the Bush family.
Stone’s films never strive for absolution for their characters, but rather for understanding. He does not pardon Bush’s actions because he was manipulated, but neither does he condemn any member of the administration. The film is too rushed and lacks Stone’s usual visual mastery, and as such holds little of the replay value of “JFK” or “Nixon.” He also should have fired Thandie Newton after the first rushes came in and recast Rice. However, this is a gripping and entertaining film that blends the facts of Bush’s life with his usual fantastical elements. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it’s one of the better films of the year.