Loving George W. Bush


W.: 131 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Oliver Stone. Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Banks, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright

Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone's WIn 2006 I reviewed Oliver Stone's then most recent film, World Trade Centre, about the destruction of New York City's Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. I suggested none too subtly that Stone had lost his nerve; that he had taken a 'gutless, "safe" approach'.

It was, perhaps, unfair of me. But my words speak to the power of expectations. Stone traditionally wields his left-wing agenda like a sledgehammer. But with WTC his approach was moderate. As one reader noted, it's absurd that a film's most controversial feature should be that it's uncontroversial.

With that in mind, those who expect W., Stone's biopic about George W. Bush, to be a portrait of a monster, will be disappointed. Stone's Bush is not exactly sympathetic. But he is human. And, damn it, he is even likeable.

As swaggeringly portrayed by Josh Brolin, W. is the proverbial black sheep of the Bush family: overshadowed by his gold-fleeced brother Jeb; ceaselessly and vainly seeking his father's (Cromwell) approval. He is passionate and affable, with a cowboy's wit and charm.

Cowboy, indeed. Stone draws selectively from W's history to play up this aspect of his persona. The youthful W. is shown as a hard-drinking, spoilt, delinquent frat boy. Later, he walks off his job at an oilrig rather than suffer the belligerence of a bullying boss.

The film's pretzel-like structure curls back and forth between such formative moments from W's youth and a pertinent period of W's presidential tenure. The events of September 11 are not portrayed, yet they are the salt grain around which the pretzel curls. When the film commences Bush is hitting his stride as a 'war' president. Afghanistan has been invaded. The newly confident President Bush and his cronies are contemplating the invasion of Iraq.

Stone makes a feature of Bush's middling intellect, and he is portrayed as an overzealous (perhaps deluded) and impressionable president, convinced that he's on a mission from God and easily manipulated, notably by Vice President Cheney (Dreyfuss). But usually, he seems to be genuinely well-intentioned.

W. may be evenhanded, but Stone can't resist the occasional ironic dig. When W. is revelling in a sense of heroic derring-do, the spritely 'Robin Hood', by Dick James with Stephen James and His Chums, starts jangling on the soundtrack. Such winks at the audience are intrusive but amusing.

The film's biggest drawback is the short shrift given to its supporting players, none of whom is as well-rounded as W. Laura Bush (Banks) is the devoted politician's-wife. Colin Powell (Wright) is weary and worldly-wise. Newton's impersonation of Condoleezza Rice seems better suited to a Saturday Night Live sketch. And when the villainous 'Darth Cheney' declares that the best justification for invading Iraq is to secure its oil resources and thus expand the American empire, one almost expects him to hyperventilate and draw a lightsaber.

Still, it seems that to W. there are no shades or layers — the world is black and white and as straightforward as a picture book. So perhaps it's appropriate that, in a film seeking to explore the reasons behind his actions and world view, the characters who surround him should be reduced to digestible stereotypes.

When I reviewed World Trade Center three years ago, I brought Henry Singer's documentary The Falling Man into the discussion, because I had seen it recently, and there seemed to be a resonance between the films and their themes. As it happens, the night I saw W., I also finished reading Hunter S. Thompson's memoir, Kingdom of Fear. It contains a scathing diatribe against the Bush administration:

'We have become Nazi monsters in the eyes of the whole world — a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us ... No redeeming social value. Just whores.'

George W. Bush may have left the building, but as Stone himself told IndieLondon: 'He's with us, the Bush Doctrine is our foreign policy'. Indeed, whatever you think of the man, his dire legacy will last. Although Stone's offering is evenhanded, others may be expected to be less charitable.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Oliver Stone, Josh Brolin, George W Bush, James Cromwell, George Bush, Richard Dreyfuss, dick cheney



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Existing comments

Brolin does a good job of capturing Bush's character, and even does okay in showing his motivation. I'm wondering, though, if Stone could have done more to explain just how someone of his obvious deficiencies could have reached the position he's in, and be given the opportunities he's been given. In a sense, as indicated by the great Hunter S Thompson, America is the villain in this story. But Stone misses that (perhaps that sort of film would not have sold as well).
Joseph Vine | 05 March 2009

Excellent review I thought. Laura was the pick of the cast as you say and I thought mum was very well played as well. Josh Brolin did well but the women were the pick of the pic, I thought.
Michael Head | 05 March 2009

I don't need a film to tell me about GW Bush. The man cannot even string two words together. How this man ever became US President is beyond me.

I never liked John Howard's politics but at least he was articulate and a good public speaker unlike his American counterpart.
Terry Steve | 05 March 2009

I followed the Bush years very closely. Stone and the cast do superb jobs in presenting the characters and the incidents depicted so accurately. Like other reviewers, Tim Kroenert suggests that Stone could have (should have?) made a more brutal assault upon Bush. Well, he does not shirk for an instant from portraying him as a mediocre, incompetent cowboy, totally unsuitable for the post. To me, the greater question (not touched by the film) is how such a buffoon could be elected, not once but twice, in a supposedly educated democracy.
Richard Olive | 05 March 2009


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