Movie Review: W.
By Matthew Huntley
October 24, 2008

Dubya debates whether to vote for McCain or Obama.

I've almost no doubt George W. Bush will go down in history as the worst president of the United States. Considering his numerous blunders, if ever there was a man more unqualified to lead the free world, it was "Dubya." His hasty decisions, unjust policies and gross misleading of the American people have caused seemingly irreparable damage. Yet, what's baffling is that Bush's history prior to his presidency - as a son, a student and a governor - never suggested he was ever right for the job, so it's sort of amazing he could be elected to the most powerful position on earth in the first place - twice! How could that happen?

Oliver Stone's W. doesn't suggest there's an easy answer to that question (one may not exist), but it does show the circumstances under which Bush decided to run for president and how his sheer will and determination (not to his mention powerful friends and family) helped put him there. Such a feat is remarkable in and of itself, but the fact that enough people gave Bush their support (and continue to give their support) remains one of the most perplexing stories of the 21st century.

Stone, the director behind such condemning films as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, doesn't slant W. the way we expect. It's hardly edgy and Stone doesn't seem interested in making a parody or a biting satire. For a film about a controversial politician, it's surprisingly objective and straightforward. It doesn't brazenly criticize the titular character, despite Bush's tarnished reputation and low approval ratings.

I admire Stone's detached strategy. After all, what would be the point of more derision? Can anybody, least of all Hollywood, really denounce Bush any further? We've already been there and done that. Stone simply wants us to watch Bush and become mesmerized by his own natural ineptitude and reprehensible behavior. Observing him is all it takes to form an opinion. Almost no spin is needed from the director. We know how he feels.

In the film, Bush is played by Josh Brolin, who impeccably captures the nuances, body language and simplified speech of the 43rd president. It helps that Brolin resembles Bush, with his rough, dry skin and medium build, but Brolin's performance isn't just physical. He embodies the man and refrains from merely mocking or imitating him, which is probably difficult since it would be so easy to fall into that trap. The first time we see him, in an extreme close-up, standing in the center of an empty baseball stadium, we believe Brolin is Bush.

The film opens in 2002, as Bush and his advisers - Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (Toby Jones), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) - brainstorm a phrase for the supposedly collective enemies of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. They eventually came up with "Axis of Evil," and right then we're reminded of how little each man and woman in the Oval Office thinks about consequences, perhaps with the exception of Powell, who succumbed to pressure from his colleagues.

In the film's most recent narrative timeline, writer Stanley Weiser chronicles Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March of 2003. Early on, we see Bush begging his staff to tell him Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, anything, to justify war. This period is inter-cut with flashbacks from Bush's troubled past, from his boozing days at Yale and Harvard to his being born again and receiving "the call" from God to run for president. As a young man, Bush repeatedly disappointed his father, George H.W. (James Cromwell), or "Poppy," while his mother, Barbara (Ellen Burstyn), was the more neutral parent.

Forever loving and enabling him is his wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), who sometimes treats her husband like an anxious little boy whom she must remind to put on pants. She encourages him to stop his heavy drinking, but it wasn't until Bush found religion that he quit altogether and started taking his political career more seriously. His ambitions, according to the film, revolve heavily around his wanting to appease his father because he was jealous of his brother, Jeb, for always hogging Poppy's love and attention. From working on his father's 1992 presidential campaign, to owning the Texas Rangers baseball team, to becoming governor of Texas in 1994, George Bush gradually found a way to be the good son and slid into higher ranks of power doing it. The rest, as you know, is history.

For those already aware of George Bush's career, W. will not prove very informative or revealing. It doesn't tell much beyond what we already know. We don't really learn much about his administration, either, as the other actors more or less play their real-life counterparts straight. Stone plays fair (for a liberal) and wants us to judge their actions for ourselves instead of unleashing controversy. And since there's so much controversy surrounding Bush already, I think it would have been redundant to show more. Of course, only the real individuals know the truth behind Bush's story, and it's likely they'll dismiss this representation without even watching it, but I believe Stone gets the broad strokes of history accurate.

Truthful or not, that's the point. This is Stone's interpretation of George Bush, and many will agree with it. But no matter how many people love or loathe him, the bottom line is George Bush, Jr. is a fascinating individual - not in an admirable sort of way, but more the inexplicable kind. He's sort of a freak of nature - a "C" student, bailed out of trouble by his father, a born again Christian, and an eventual world leader. That's not a conventional life by any means, and that's what keeps us drawn into Stone's film. It's not riveting, but knowing George Bush simply exists makes it ceaselessly watchable. Sometimes you can't believe he's even real.

To me, the mark of a good biopic is not how accurate the film is, but how well made it is. Ask yourself if such films as My Left Foot, Chaplin or Ray would be just as engrossing and entertaining if their subjects never existed in real life. W. would be, and because the main character is real makes it all the more engaging.

What the film did for me was subdue my anger towards George Bush. It made me realize he's not an evil man who wakes up wanting to hurt America. He doesn't even seem to be aware he's doing anything wrong. In fact, I believe he really does love this country, but that love does not qualify him to be president. Obviously, though, the things he did were enough to get him elected. Such a story is remarkable. It's sad and unfortunate, but remarkable.