Given the limitations of Oliver Stone’s biopic about George W. Bush (modest budget, rushed production, lack of memoirs by the officials who started the Iraq War, and Stone’s own fading powers), ”W.” turns out better than expected. Anchored by another charismatic performance by Josh Brolin (the hunter turned hunted protagonist of ”No Country for Old Men”), this tragicomedy of regression to the mean offers a plausible depiction of the President’s resentful yet admiring relationship with his imposing father, and the complicated ways that set the stage for the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Brolin has emerged recently as such an enjoyable leading man to watch that he makes spending 129 minutes with George W. Bush fun.
The historical accuracy of Stone’s films has been improving since their nadir with the infuriating but stylistically dazzling ”JFK” in 1991. Unfortunately, as the older, wiser Stone has gotten more honest, his aesthetic bravura has dwindled. I only noticed two scenes that seemed distinctly dubious: Dick Cheney ranting about America acquiring a global empire of oil, and a 1988 passage in which Dubya talks his dad into running the Willie Horton ad. (The undying omnipresence of favorite liberal talking points like Willie Horton in our cultural memory points out that history isn’t actually written by the victors, it’s written by the writers of history.) The great majority of the screenplay, though, strikes me as on solid ground, historically and psychologically.
Visually, Stone seems to be trying to make ”W.” look even more like a made-for-TV movie (maybe one of those Dallas reunion specials) than the limited budget mandated. The score is weak. Other than a creepy-acting Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, the supporting actors don’t look like much like their real-life counterparts (Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney?), but turn in competent performances.
And don’t expect a complete portrait of the origin of the War–there’s barely any mention of the neocons or of Bush’s unquestioning political correctness that made him assume Iraqis (!) were ready for democracy.
Still, ”W.” is entertaining, informative, and likable. It has not been a success with the critics, who are annoyed that it doesn’t condemn conservatism as inherently evil. Indeed, Stone’s depiction of George H.W. Bush as an old-fashion prudent conservative is downright hagiographic. The 6’-7” James Cromwell, best known as the farmer in the talking pig classic ”Babe,” brings more gravitas to the role of the 41st President than did the boyishly goofy elder Bush himself.
Stone was the natural choice to film the empathetic screenplay by Stanley Weisberg (who cowrote ”Wall Street” with him two decades ago) because he has much in common with the President, such as substance abuse problems, a religious conversion, and declining popularity. The son of a Wall Street tycoon, Stone entered Yale the same year as Bush. Stone’s rebellion played out more flagrantly. While Bush followed his father’s path (Skull and Bones, military aviation, oil, and politics), just more drunkenly, Stone volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam (as shown in his ”Platoon.”)
It’s unfortunate that Freud’s silly theories have discredited all psychological analyses based on nuclear family dynamics, because they can sometimes explain much about politicians. The ambitions of both Winston Churchill and Barack Obama, for example, were fired by political fathers fired by political fathers who ignored their sons on the way up, before failing ignominiously.
George W. Bush’s Poppy Problem was the opposite of Obama’s: his father was an all around pretty good guy. As Stone commented, ”Forty years is a long time to wait when your father is better at sports, politics, oil, money, diplomacy, and even academics than you are.” Nor did it help that his dad saw W.’s younger brother Jeb as his natural successor in the White House.
The relationship between father and son also had its good side. The father kept giving the prodigal son second chances, and W. finally repaid him, quitting drinking the day after his boozy 40th birthday party in 1986, in part to keep his behavior from distracting from his father’s White House run. He went on to be a surprisingly decent governor of Texas by concentrating on just four reforms. Then, the Peter Principle promoted him to his ”level of incompetence,” the Presidency.
While the father was known as the In-Box President, the younger Bush wanted to be the opposite, the Pushbutton President, the decider who makes a few big, tough choices based on gut instinct, then lets the Pentagon sweep up without bothering him with tiresome details.