The Thinker

Review: W. (2008)

It is hard to find Oliver Stone movies that do not deserve to be on someone’s A List. W., which attempts to chronicle the life of President George W. Bush, may be one of the few from this noted director to deserve to be ranked somewhere between the A and the B List. It is not a B movie, as plenty of money was spent on it and it has overall good directing and acting. Still, it does not measure up. If there is a definitive movie on George W. Bush, it has yet to be filmed. This one, filmed and released while Bush was still president, feels more like a made for TV movie.

I finished W. thinking, “This movie probably misses who George W. Bush is by a fairly wide mark.” As regular readers know, I loathed him as our president. Moreover, his kind (conservative Republicans) tends to give me the hives. The only Bush I know is the one I saw on TV or heard on the radio. Even so, I am plenty skeptical that the George W. Bush played here by Josh Brolin comes close to portraying George W. Bush the actual man.

W. could almost be classified as a satire, because Brolin portrays Bush as someone who is probably even more inept than he actually is. In the movie Stone seems to be using Bush as his little Voodoo doll, pricking it to see if anything will bleed. From the tone of the movie, it is clear that Stone loathes the guy. He has lots of company there. The movie often feels jumbled together, throwing actors who resemble people we know too intimately (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove and Powell in particular) into tightly choreographed scenes that collapses the eight years of his presidency. It attempts to explain George W. Bush but left this viewer more confused than ever.

As portrayed by Stone, Bush has serious daddy issues with his father and 41st president of the United States, whom he calls Poppy. Poppy is constantly bailing out junior, who both needs Poppy and wants to be free of him. The movie makes innuendos that I am not sure are backed up by fact, for example that Bush impregnated a woman before marriage and that Poppy arranged for the abortion. The movie also suggests that Bush resumed drinking after the crap in Iraq got too deep. Granted, Bush’s behavior these last few years has gotten more incoherent, but that could be due to other things than picking up the bottle again. Perhaps like Ronald Reagan, these are signs of early Alzheimer’s.

Likely part of my reaction to W. is my wish to forget about the man. Bush himself may be retiring quietly in Dallas, but principles from his administration are still regularly annoying us. Specifically former Vice President Dick Cheney, creepily portrayed in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss and Karl Rove (portrayed by Toby Jones) refused to leave the national stage just because their administration was finally out of power. The last eight years still makes me feel queasy from time to time; so reliving them in this 129-minute movie frequently had me wanting to reach for the Pepto Bismol.

The movie frequently moves back and forth on the timeline. Bush comes across as dangerously naïve and gullible. I could be wrong, but I doubt the man was quite as naïve and gullible as he is portrayed. Stone suggests that Bush’s infatuation with Evangelical Christianity was due to his simpleminded nature and a way to separate himself from Poppy, who adhered to a dry and milquetoast Episcopalianism.

Nor are Brolin and James Cromwell (who play’s Bush’s father) convincing as younger versions of themselves. Trying to emulate W’s fraternity days at Yale, Brolin looks like a 40 something guy pretended to be in his early 20s. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush looks too young. Ellen Bursytn as Barbara Bush looks too thin and seems too nice. Scott Glen as Donald Rumsfeld looks even creepier than the man he portrays (if that is possible). There are many actors in the movie that I suspect exaggerate the people they portray. Not that they necessarily do a bad job with their portrayals. Jeffrey Wright looks a little young to portray Colin Powell, but he carries himself with conviction. Thandie Newton (portraying Condoleeza Rice) portrays Rice as superficial and disengaged.

If the movie is an attempt to explain Bush to the world, then I think the movie leaves the viewer more confused. Bush comes across as someone who does not know who he is or how he fits into his large dysfunctional family. His personal savior is not so much Jesus Christ as Karl Rove, who latches onto Bush early in his career and tries to mold him into the image of someone who can meet the emerging demographics that Republicans need to capture.

Stone must have a fatal attraction to politicians, since he has also made movies about John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Still, overall W is disappointing considering Stone directed landmark films like Wall Street, Platoon and Natural Born Killers. If he had to make the definitive movie about George W. Bush, he should have waited another decade so we could appraise the man more dispassionately.

3.0 on my four-point scale.


One Response to “Review: W. (2008)”

  1. 1:59 pm on May 4 2009, Gerard McGarry said:

    I never got around to reviewing the movie myself, but was nodding a lot in agreement with your words. It seemed like Stone was playing to the anti-Bush audience and was happy to play to the accepted stereotype, because nobody in that audience was going to disagree. The scene where Bush and his advisors got lost on his ranch while planning the Iraq invasion lacked a lot of subtlety (but was quite funny).

    Still, it was a confusing movie, because the bias was obvious, one couldn’t possibly comment on the biographical accuracy of the story. Your closing point about waiting a few more years to have the benefit of hindsight (and other information that will no doubt leak out) was spot on.

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