Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I wish W. hadn't been released in the supercharged political atmosphere leading up to Election Day. I don't know what calculations went into the timing, but I'm sure many will decide to see or not see Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biopic based on politics. That's unfortunate. Perhaps it will take a few years for this film to find an audience based on it's merits as a film. For it is a terrific piece of work -- Stone's best in a good long while -- like fifteen years or so. I consider the 80s to have been his best period -- especially the triptych of Platoon, Wall Street and Talk Radio. Actually, if one comes to W. expecting a Bush-bashing fest or a series of Saturday Night Live skits, they'll be disappointed. I'm not a Dubya-hater, but I agree with the thrust of Stanley Weiser's script that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was a blunder. What factors drove the decision and whether it was born out of a desire in Junior to finish the job that Senior failed to finish in Gulf War I is plausible speculation, but speculation nonetheless. What isn't speculation is that the astonishing rise of George, Jr. from roguish failure to Governor of Texas to being a 2-term President was in large part a quest to gain the approval of Poppy. Jeb was the one who got good grades and who might someday even run for President, not Junior.

W. begins with a 2002 Oval Office meeting featuring the principal players: Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz and Tenet (did I forget anyone?) as they bat around the now-famous phrase "axis of evil." The film then flashes back to young George at Yale undergoing a fraternity hazing ritual featuring prodigious amounts of booze. This begins a pattern of scenes where George is rarely without a bottle of beer or cocktail in his hand throughout the 1970s and early 80s. Weiser's script deftly cuts back and forth between past and present. Often a film that covers this much ground feels rushed and thin on characterization. Not here. Stone deftly captures time and place using well-designed sets and Louisiana locations. Two seminal events of Bush's early adulthood are portrayed effectively and even sympathetically -- meeting Laura Welch and his decision to give up alcohol. The latter led to joining an evangelical Bible study group, and the scene where Bush asks his minister to pray with him is executed without any note of satire that I could detect. I found it quite moving.

It's when the action moves to the Oval Office and War Room that Stone unleashes the satire. It's more Dr. Strangelove than SNL. There's something inherently funny about Richard Dreyfuss playing Dick Cheney, but it turns into vintage black comedy when Dreyfuss stands in front of a giant map of the world plotting domination of Eurasia. The movie is well cast. Even when the actor bears no resemblance to who they're playing (i.e. Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld or Jeffrey Wright as Powell) they manage to pull it off. It's Josh Brolin that carries the film, and he would have to. It's hard to play someone as well-known as a sitting President without it becoming a caricature or mere impression. He uncannily captures some of the tics and mannerisms of the 43rd POTUS, but he brings a presence and charisma of his own to the role. Llewelyn Moss in No Country For Old Men and now George W. Bush...he's got the Texas thing down pat. I thought he brought integrity to this role and never got the feeling he was playing it for laughs. Heck, even the most rabid Bush-hater may find themselves admitting that Dubya's is a remarkable story. Probably there will be other Hollywood treatments of this Bush Administration. Stone has taken his crack at it and set the bar quite high. Ultimately, it's history not Hollywood that will deliver the most important verdict on the eldest son of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

stephen, you are a splendid writer. moise and i saw w. last night and enjoyed it. there was a guy sitting in the theatre that exploded with loud laughter throughout the film, which made us giggle, too.