Just as we get ready to elect a new president, “W” is here to remind us how insane the last eight years have been. Only some of the incredibly eventful Bush presidency is examined in Oliver Stone’s flawed attempt at what, in truth, is impossible: a comprehensive portrait of one of the most important figures of our time. But by omitting so many crucial events, and by failing to reach a decisive conclusion about Bush, Stone hasn’t come close to capturing the historical weight of the Bush period—that feeling that we have been living through a time of awful consequence.
The amount of history that Stone and his screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, leave out is startling. The 2000 election, Sept. 11, Katrina — all are ignored. Instead, the film focuses on three periods of time. There’s what we might call “the screw-up years,” when W. was a drunk who failed at everything he tried. There’s the born-again period, when, after a particularly liquor-sodden 40th birthday, W. saw the light (framed, in “W,” in none-too-subtle blinding white fashion.) And there are the months in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, when a cast of familiar characters swarms and plots around Bush. These choices leave a bit to be desired: Is Stone saying that, for instance, Bush’s religious awakening, which is given major play, tells us more about him than all the things he’s left out?
Stone and Weiser are lucky to have Josh Brolin’s central performance to distract us from these questions. Brolin does the best Bush I’ve ever seen. (That voice! That walk! That smirk!) He captures the natural charisma that served Bush so well in life, along with the intellectual narrow-mindedness and callousness that served him so poorly. It is a performance that deserves better than the movie it’s in.
Sometimes, “W” almost rises to Brolin’s level. A great deal of time is spent on Bush’s multiple failures in the decades leading up to his election as governor of Texas, especially on his chronic alcoholism. These sections, with their relative simplicity, work better than the Iraq sections. Bush comes off as the eternal trust-fund frat boy brat, constantly drinking, trading his name for perks and flitting from venture to venture.
Most of the time, though, Brolin has to battle Stone’s bad choices. One of the film’s main problems is the weight put on Bush’s fractious relationship with his cold, withholding father, who he calls Poppy. All of the pop psychology (no pun intended) drags “W” down. “Why are you always sad for Jeb?” Bush whines to Poppy in a typical scene, after he wins his race for governor on the same day his brother has lost his own. “Why can’t you feel good for me?” We get far too many scenes of Bush, Sr. saying things like “you disappoint me, Jr.,” as well as a wholly overblown and unnecessary dream sequence where they trade punches in the Oval Office. It’s a tired cliché, and while it’s true that much of Bush’s actions have seemed to wilfully defy his father’s wishes, “W” would have us believe that it’s guided almost everything he’s done — a claim that lets him off the hook way too much.
Besides Brolin, every other performance is near-cartoon farce, especially during the Iraq sections. Particular standouts include Richard Dreyfuss as Richard Cheney, a demonic smile permanently etched on the corner of his mouth, and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, all teeth and wiggling eyebrows. Ultimately, though, the performances only go as far as impersonation. (“My God, he looks just like him!” the woman sitting next to me gasped when Dreyfuss edged onto the screen.)
The analysis of the administration isn’t much deeper, mostly because Stone and Weiser pull their punches. The government is portrayed as sinister and devious (gushing over the oil in Iraq and snarling, “There is no exit — we stay!”) and, at the same time, blindsided by the lack of WMD’s. Do the filmmakers think that we were lied into war, or that the administration simply made a colossal mistake?
At times, the film seems to lurch towards some kind of condemnation of the administration. There is a delightful scene between Bush and Cheney over lunch that captures their relationship beautifully, all while mentioning the “1-percent doctrine” and government-sponsored torture. And during a heated Iraq debate in the White House, Bush slinks over to sit next to Karl Rove in a dark corner. By the end of the conversation, the two have almost become one, a shadowy, ruthless, morally suspect blob with two pairs of floating glasses.
But overall, “W” wavers back and forth. Stone seems hamstrung by the wimpy idea that “balance” is required in a film like this. What’s actually required is a strong and steady narrative arc, rather than one that’s all over the shop. What’s the point of making a movie about a man as interesting and outsized as George W. Bush — and his interesting and outsized presidency — if the only conclusion you reach at the end is, “lots happened and it was complicated”? Without a real verdict, “W” becomes a large-scale parlor game where we marvel at the makeup and wait for our favorite lines.
I’m not saying that the film had to condemn Bush as a hateful fascist, or that every single thing the government did should have been included. The best histories aren’t the ones that include every detail. But they do try to capture the mood and tenor of the time. The biggest problem with “W” is that it doesn’t come close to doing this. If you haven’t lived through the last eight years, watching this movie won’t give you a sense of how important the Bush presidency has been to our country. With nothing new to say, it becomes a shallow, perfunctory look back at the Bush years. Frankly, that’s not something I want to have to experience all over again.