Perhaps it goes without saying, but on the other hand maybe it really does need to be noted, that Oliver Stone is a filmmaker, not a journalist. His latest film, “W.,” is not a documentary. It’s not even a biopic in the traditional sense. It is, instead, art. What Stone has done is taken a number of real facts about the life of our current President and mixed them with some imagined characterizations and motives to create a rather absorbing fictional story about a relatively ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. Any resemblance to reality is irrelevant.
Stone may, in fact, have nailed Bush; maybe not. In the world of historical fiction, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has crafted an interesting story that some people might be able to identify with. And perhaps it might also sound a bit of a caveat for an audience who might be soon choosing a President.
“W.” is basically the story of a rather average guy who likes to drink beer, watch football, eat (and choke on) pretzels, party hard, and who drifts from job to job until, in middle age, he finds Jesus, is “born again,” and gives up alcohol. What makes him different from everyone else in the world who fits that same description is that his father happens to be an extremely wealthy and important man—son of a senator, a Congressman, the head of the CIA, a vice-President, and finally President of the United States. What it must be like to have such a father!
So, in this movie, the fictional George W. Bush is portrayed as a man haunted by his stern father—both in dreams and in real life. He struggles to win his approval, steal some limelight from his brother Jeb, and finish the job that in his view his father failed to complete (i.e. take out Saddam Hussein in 1991). Though he’s not too bright and expresses himself poorly, he manages to overcome his dependency on alcohol, give up his lazy party-hearty past, and rise all the way to the White House using family money and connections. What a long, strange trip.
Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. Once in the White House, the gut decisions made by this man of average intelligence, with little patience for subtlety and complexity, who is surrounded by far more intelligent people with their own agenda, end up effecting millions—hundreds of millions—in the US and throughout the world, in rather negative ways.
By an interesting coincidence, I spent this last weekend watching the 1976 miniseries “The Adams Chronicles” about the famous Adams family which partly deals with John Quincy Adams distinguishing himself from his more-celebrated father. Because of this, I was particularly sensitive to the portrait of John Quincy Adams (or “Q.” as a friend of mine likes to call him) which popped up in the background in several scenes. And it reminded me just how appropriate the title “W.” is, because it is that middle initial which distinguishes him as different from his father. And this is the whole crux of the film, as exemplified by the dream sequence in which W and his father have a fight in the Oval Office.
The film is not structured chronologically; instead it flashes back and forth between scenes in the White House where W and his inner circle plan, execute, and deal with the consequences of the Iraq War, and scenes from earlier in his life, explaining how and why he got to that point. Not every key moment in W’s life is depicted. The most notable exception is the 2000 election. Granted, the recent HBO film “Recount” thoroughly examined that and perhaps Stone figured it wasn’t necessary to recover that same territory. But it seems to me, within the context of “W.,” about a man’s crazy journey to the White House, that’s a rather important step to be missing.
Still, there are some excellent scenes which do speak volumes. One to note is the scene in the War Room where Dick Cheney explains the importance of oil and the necessity for building and maintaining an American empire. Another great scene is the one in which Bush’s inner circle seriously and angrily blame each other for the mistake of wrongly assuming Hussein had WMDs while Rumsfeld casually chomps down on pecan pie, completely indifferent to the subject; he apparently considered it irrelevant that there were no WMDs.
The casting is excellent. Thandie Newton does a pitch perfect impersonation of Condoleezza Rice. Also excellent performances by James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as W’s parents, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, and Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld. But the really great acting here is Josh Brolin as W in what might be an Oscar-nominated performance (we shall see). While it may not be the most perfect impersonation of our current President, he certainly captures his spirit.
The tone in the film shifts a lot. There are scenes that seem to be light-hearted, gently poking fun of W’s low-brow style and butchering of the English language. But other scenes are dreadfully serious, such as one where he visits wounded veterans; then you realize what a serious effect his poor decisions have made. It’s almost as if to say, “Ha ha, isn’t it funny that we have a President who is lazy and stupid? Wait, no, it’s not funny at all.”
The ending, at first, left me a little cold; it just seemed to fizzle. A title card proclaimed “The End” when it clearly was not at all an ending. I generally like films that have some grand conclusion, not just slowly wear themselves out. But now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on how “W.” ends, I realize it’s a bit more profound. It shows a guy who thought he had it all figured out slowly starting to realize that he’s in way over his head and has no idea what he’s doing. A twist on the famous line, W has become a man who has gained his soul but lost the world.
I suspect history will judge the real George W. Bush pretty harshly, but the fictional W, in this film, is judged a bit more sympathetically. You may not like him or his politics, but it’s pretty hard not to feel sorry for him, his psychological hang-ups, and the circumstances of his birth and his life which brought him to a role he’s incapable of fulfilling properly. Now that’s art.