Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Josh Brolin, James Cromwell and Richard Dreyfuss
I know what you’re thinking. Liberal wackjob director Oliver North releases a biopic on a Republican sitting president—a man who surely ranks among the most loathed in history—barely two weeks shy of the election to anoint his successor. It’s gonna be a bloodbath, right? A no-holds-barred, Natural Born Killers meets Nixon hatchet job? A vengeful send-up of a man considered by many to be the biggest idiot to ever sit in the Oval Office?
Except that it’s not that, really. And it just might be something a whole lot deeper.
W. opens with a tight shot of the 43rd president’s eyes, as played by Josh Brolin, and the camera pulls back to reveal a baseball-jacketed middle-aged man standing alone in the outfield of a deserted ballpark, hands raised in a winner’s pose, reveling in the roar of a phantom crowd. But, although there is a light sense of the scene’s inherent goofiness, the portrayal isn’t a malicious one. Brolin’s easy exuberance, combined with a camera move that sweeps high in the air and gives the shot a genuine grandeur, is a tone-setter for Stone’s handling of Bush: fantastical at moments, but surprisingly grounded the rest of the time and, some would say, even sympathetic.
Another early scene depicts a meeting discussing the birth of the decision to tab Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil” for Bush’s now-infamous 2002 State of the Union speech—the first of two such speeches that laid the foundation for his preemptive strike on Saddam Hussein and the war in Iraq. It’s the first look we get at the Stone-imagined cabinet, and all the heavy hitters are there: Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and, of course, the ubiquitous Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss).
If Stone intended to paint Bush as a puppet of the likes of Rove and Cheney—a fairly common public perception—this would have been a fine opportunity to do so. But again, Stone opts for a more nuanced approach, showing Bush carefully weighing the pros and cons of the phrase before reaching a decision notable for both its autonomy and finality. The decider, indeed.
With the bulk of Hollywood falling safely into the anti-Bush crowd, Stone could have used his impressive cast to cinematically bludgeon Bush and his cronies. While it’s true that several members of the cabinet receive less-than-flattering treatment (Jones doesn’t shy from Rove’s lack of social graces, Glenn wears Rumsfeld’s arrogance like armor and Newton brilliantly projects Rice’s utter capitulation to her boss), Stone exercises restraint by stopping well short of their easily attained and burlesque caricatures.
But the defining aspect of Stone’s W. is its emphasis on the private Bush over the well-documented public Bush. Sure, the most notable of Bush’s public gaffes are here, from the embarrassing decision to include shaky intelligence about Hussein’s nuclear capabilities in the 2003 State of the Union to the perhaps even more embarrassing “Mission Accomplished” photo op aboard an aircraft carrier.
But most of the screen time here is spent on the behind-the-scenes Bush, particularly in his pre-politician years. Before he quit drinking at the age of 40, Bush was a confessed (and fairly well-documented) party animal, and Stone paints a graphic picture of Bush as he quits jobs and skips between varied business ventures, all the while propped up by the Bush family legacy in general and his father George H.W. “Poppy” Bush in particular.
And wow, does the Oedipal thing leave a mark. Poppy is played by James Cromwell, whose angular features appear made of flint, and sparks fly continually as the Bushes Junior and Senior butt heads in confrontations often moderated by an unsympathetic Barbara (played acerbically by Ellen Burstyn). It’s a hugely and uncomfortably compelling dynamic, not only because of the inherent awkwardness of father-son power plays, but also because it involves two very relevant—and very contemporary—public figures.
There will likely be those who argue that Stone had no business making the internal Bush drama his central storyline, since family politics are most often harder to decipher than public politics. But Stone proves a shifty target in this regard. There is artistic license to consider, of course—as a fictional depiction, W. could argue that its subject is a Martian, and all critics could do is call it preposterous.
To be sure, there are aspects of W. that stretch credulity—the dream sequence in which Poppy challenges Junior to a throw-down in the Oval Office comes to mind—but they are overt, and clearly constructed as fantasy. They’re also balanced by the weight of authenticity that Stone hangs on his main character in critical times, like the come-to-Jesus conversation with his minister that precipitates his second birth, and the love-at-first-sight encounter with his future wife.
But most of all, the power of W. arises from its grounding in reality, as demonstrated by the official film guide on the movie’s website, where 83 of the film’s scenes are broken down and attributed to news and biographical sources. W. is one man’s interpretation of another man’s life, but it’s far from a shot in the dark.