*. By 2008 Oliver Stone was pretty much a spent force, at least in terms of the creativity and imagination he was showing in his work. W. continues his longstanding fascination with political matters (it’s virtually all he talks about on his DVD commentary), but it’s so flat a film you have to wonder why he bothered with it.
*. What he offers up isn’t a new or insightful interpretation on Bush or his presidency. There were a pile of books that had come out covering the same ground, which are linked to on the DVD’s Official Film Guide (a document over 100 pages long) and referenced by Stone throughout the commentary (those cited the most being the ones by Weisberg, Susskind, Isikoff and Corn, Woodward, and Mayer). I read all these books when they came out and my impression of the film was that it was only skating on the surface of things, while taking some liberties throughout in trying to condense the material and make it more dramatic. Stone: “This is a movie, we’ve gotta get to the point.”
*. So expect all the greatest hits, though sometimes placed in different contexts. There’s the enunciation of Cheney’s 1% doctrine and Powell’s Pottery Barn rule. There’s Rumsfeld talking about the absence of evidence not being evidence of absence and George Tenet proclaiming a slam dunk. There’s Jr. offering to take on his dad mano a mano. And of course there are the infamous Bushisms such as his mangling of the “Fool me once” line and his asking “Is our children learning?” But does all this add up to a script?
*. Not really. Stone does have two angles on Bush that he uses to turn this into a real character study. These are his foregrounding of the dynamic between father and son (with W. as the elder son who is never able to measure up), and Bush’s coming to Jesus.
*. About the latter there is very little to say. Was it just a ploy to get elected? Who can tell? We do hear Bush say that he doesn’t want to be out-Jesused again after an early election loss. But his moment of conversion, which comes after a jog in the forest, is presented in such an insipid way (looking up at the light shining through the trees) that it’s hard to feel like much of anything has occurred. The moment is totally unexpressive and dramatically inert.
*. The father-son conflict is more developed, but in the end struck me as banal. It’s a point that’s easily made, and once made where do you go with it? In fact, I was left wondering where this movie was going right through to the end, which just leaves everything hanging out in center field (or at the end of Bush’s first term). The baseball dreams being another example of the film’s relentless inanity.
*. Critics thought it looked like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, and they had a point. Some of the impersonations work better than others. Here’s my breakdown.
*. Good: Richard Dreyfuss steals the show as Dick Cheney, capturing the quiet and cynical way this dark figure led from the shadows in real life. Bruce McGill is a great George Tenet, portraying a schlub way out of his depth. Thandie Newton is the most SNL, doing a perfect comic turn as Condoleeza Rice, and Toby Jone is almost as good a caricature as the dweebish Karl Rove.
*. Bad: Jeffrey Wright isn’t close to Colin Powell (and the script’s Colin Powell — presenting him as the cabinet’s voice of conscience — isn’t credible to begin with). Scott Glenn is invisible as Rumsfeld. James Cromwell isn’t convincing at all as Bush Sr., not conveying any of the energy or anger that made his media image as a wimp so curious.
*. Then there’s Josh Brolin. A late choice, coming after Christian Bale, who would go on to play Cheney in Vice a decade later. I think he does well enough, though he looks a little too serious for the role. I always thought Bush had a bit of goofiness about him. Might Will Ferrell have done the part just as well, if not better? It’s not an idle question.
*. The real problem here though is that Brolin has so little to work with. That’s partly the fault of the script (for example in the presentation of his conversion, already mentioned), but it’s also a problem, I think, with Bush himself. Was there really all that much there? The father-son relationship gave Stone something to hang his hat on, but aside from that there just isn’t much else to go on. So cue the newsreels.
*. As a small example of the need to make something out of nothing take the scene when the inspector David Kay shows up and admits that he couldn’t find any WMDs in Iraq. We see Brolin’s Bush seething and lashing out. But in Kay’s own account of that meeting he was surprised at the lack of response. In his own words: “I cannot stress too much that the president was the one in the room who was least unhappy and the least disappointed about the lack of WMDs. I came out of the Oval Office uncertain as to how to read the president. Here was an individual who was oblivious to the problems created by the failure to find the WMDs. Or was this an individual who was completely at peace with himself on the decision to go to war, who didn’t question that, and who was totally focused on the here and now and what was to come?” Questions without answers. Because Bush was an American sphinx? Or because there was no riddle to be solved?
*. Another example of just how little Stone was working with can be seen in his decision to include so many scenes of Bush stuffing his face with food (and speaking with his mouth full). He even eats so much at one point that he chokes on a pretzel. On the commentary Stone explains this was all done to show Bush’s common touch and to give him a certain visceral quality: “a sense of being in touch with common needs.” Like eating. You can see how basic all this is. Personally, I think the eating motif goes better with Stone’s vision of Bush as “a man filled with wants.” But then, I’m not sure what those wants were.
*. Some people were expecting more of a hatchet job. I think there are some subtle critical touches that are easily missed, like Bush’s spoiled whining about how tough it was being born with a silver spoon in his mouth or not being able to run his three miles a day any more and his knees hurting. But overall it’s quite a generous portrait, and Stone even says on the commentary that it’s part of the nature of such a movie to make people look good. At least, I suppose, if you don’t want to be sued. “Who knows what the real George Bush is really like?” he offers up at one point, saying only that his Bush seems right to him. The kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with, as Rove would have it. Or see a ballgame or a movie with. Or a movie about.
*. Finally, one can’t leave a film like this without wondering at how quickly the oddity of Bush was surpassed by Trump. I mentioned the pile of books that immediately came out on the Bush presidency, but that pile would be as nothing compared to the avalanche of insider accounts of Trump’s court. And while Bush had his SNL send-ups they were, again, far outdone by that show’s coverage of the Trumpster fire. Stone mentions near the end of his commentary how most conservatives were aghast at Bush’s presidency and its flouting of precedent. If they were, they learned to change their tune eight years later.
*. One expects Trump biopics to arrive soon, but how can they take any form other than comedy? As it is, there are several moments in W. that lean in that direction, and Vice would take things even further. Was the presidency following the culture in this, or was it the other way around? Either way, in the twenty-first century American politics came to seem a lot less serious. I think this was a scary development.