Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
2 hr., 11 min. Rated PG-13
After being battered for nearly eight years by the delusional and/or incompetent actions of the current administration, reality seems to have finally caught up with Bush, Cheney, their enablers on both sides of the aisle and the Republican Party in general. As Bush heads toward the exit of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he is being garlanded with superlatives … superlatives like Lowest Approval Rating in Decades, Highest Disapproval Rating in Even More Decades, and maybe even the really big one – Worst American President Ever.
It isn’t clear whether this bodes well or ill for Oliver Stone’s new biopic, W., which – while not the ideological lambasting many probably expected – is not a portrait the subject himself would find flattering. However, those who consider Bush a war criminal may be more angered by Stone’s hints of sympathy than the still-faithful 20-30 percent will be by the film’s view of Dubya as a cross between Oedipus and Forrest Gump – an incredibly shallow man, way way out of his depth.
Stone’s narrative structure intercuts between an apparent “now” – roughly 2002-2004 – and the previous 35-40 years, from a creepy fraternity hazing through a creepier public ascent. By college, George (Josh Brolin) is already the family disappointment, committing all the transgressions typically seen among Rich Kids Acting Out.
The son is rebelling against his father’s low opinion of him, but it’s unclear which came first. All we know is that, by the time he’s entering real manhood, Bush Sr. is continually favoring his better-adjusted, more successful little brother, Jeb – in essence, making George play Fredo to Jeb’s Michael.
But things turn out differently for the Bushes than they did for the Corleones. Having gotten his act together (kind of) – thanks to the love of a good woman (Elizabeth Banks’s Laura) and a newfound relationship with the Big White-Bearded Guy in the Sky – this Fredo manages to pull ahead of his smarter kid brother.
Brolin pretty much inhabits the role, even though he’s physically not ideal. That is, he’s just a little too big, hunky and handsome, even for the earlier, brazen Bush, let alone the deflated figure who nowadays pops out of the White House occasionally to assert his leadership to a skeptical nation.
Stone doesn’t view Bush as evil in a Cheney-esque way. Nor does he seem to regard him as – to use Paul Begala’s recent characterization – “a high-functioning moron.” The film suggests that Bush has certain positive traits. Unfortunately they’re exactly the wrong positive traits for the most powerful job in the world.
Richard Dreyfuss unsurprisingly plays Cheney as a much more sinister character, sometimes disclosing an edge of almost insane arrogance, as though he’s channeling George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. He’s not in that many scenes, but he’s really terrific, making Cheney almost satanic as he craftily misleads and manipulates his nominal boss.
Scott Glenn’s invoking of Donald Rumsfeld is less successful. Thandie New-ton fares worst of all; her impression of Condoleezza Rice, while almost perfect, is nonetheless exactly that – an impression, the only portrayal that feels like a Saturday Night Live, caricature.
In contrast, Cromwell doesn’t seem the least bit interested in replicating George H.W. Bush’s voice or accent, yet he captures the sense of an old-money WASP, chilly and emotionally distant, too absorbed in upholding the family name, with little clue how to love his eldest son.
As with Nixon, Stone seems to take minimal liberties. Of course, he has to invent the domestic conversations in the Bush household. But his most frequent departures from the record involve transplanting famous Bush statements and gaffes into different settings, which seems well within the bounds of dramatic license. Most or all of the statements themselves are genuine (or at least straight from insiders’ memoirs) and will immediately be recognizable to those who have been unable to turn away from the slow-motion train wreck of the last seven years.
The story necessarily winds up without a natural ending, since the train wreck is still happening. But Stone and Weiser suggest that somewhere in the shallow depths of Bush’s consciousness lurks the knowledge of his abject failure. . . and worse. In a nightmare, George Sr. is mocking and taunting him for his screw ups. When Dubya tries to counter by listing the ways in which he has surpassed Sr., the latter laughingly reveals that the younger Bush achieved nothing on his own, that Sr. was still quietly pulling the strings that led to those successes. For a personality trying to prove his worth to dad, that’s a more horrifying possibility than mere failure.