What will history make of President George W. Bush? Oliver Stone, as he keeps reminding interviewers, is a dramatist, not a historian, and his film W. tells of a man who gained the world but lost his soul. The movie, as you may have heard, is surprisingly gentle and even-handed towards its subject; as with Stone’s underrated 1995 Nixon, the director gazes upon a disgraced president and sees a weak man driven by family dysfunction (the two films make natural bookend pieces). No Bush fan myself, I was frequently moved by the spectacle of Stone’s Dubya, who might have been a happier and certainly less troublesome man had he not been born a Bush.
W. is being marketed as an irreverent comedy, but the laughs, if any, are sparse and hollow. At times, the movie is suffused with melancholic regret. That’s not to say there isn’t humor in Josh Brolin’s dead-on incarnation of Bush from his frat-house days to the end of his first term (the movie ends well before things start really sucking for Bush). Brolin gets Bush’s sidewise approach to speech, his crabbed, hunched movements — Bush sees things simply, and his hands constantly shape the air to describe the world in either-or, Manichean terms (he isn’t nonverbal, he’s postverbal). Often stuffing sandwiches (or the famous pretzels) into his face, Brolin’s Bush is almost childlike, or at least a case of arrested development, a kid still wanting to get Poppy’s blessing and swipe some of the limelight from Jeb.
It’s well-documented that Bush was a layabout and a drunk well into his adult years, flitting from job to job, until finally he got Jesus and quit booze. Stone doesn’t make much of Bush’s conversion, but he doesn’t ridicule it either. A scene with preacher Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach), a composite character, praying with Bush is tender and intimate; years later, when Hudd is a more prosperous TV evangelist, Stone tosses in a close-up of his tacky belt buckle emblazoned with a cross, but for the most part Stone presents Bush’s faith without judgment, as something that saved his life and many other addicts’ lives. It’s when policy is pursued based on that faith that things get sticky.
Now that the Godfather films are ancient history, Stone is the master of darkly electrifying scenes of powerful talking heads. W. draws back the curtain and finds Bush surrounded by advisers trying their damnedest to realize the president’s dream of finishing what his father started. Saddam Hussein must fall; it’s a point of honor for Bush, his chance to wreathe the family name in glory. Saddam falls, but the Bush legacy falls with him. Perhaps Saddam was more valuable to Bush as a motivator than as a game trophy. The plotting is less sinister than matter-of-fact: the war must be sold to the American people, and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, underplaying nicely) sees Bush’s daddy issues, sees the global chessboard with all that oil for the taking, and makes his move.
Bush infamously acts from the gut, and so does the movie. W., a rushed production, didn’t have the lead time and doesn’t have the screen time to dig into Bush’s psyche the way Nixon did with America’s previous executive failure. There’s not as much to dig for, anyway; it’s all pretty much on the surface, pretty much Psych 101. But the film does take a generation’s most despised president and turn him into a man, a human with a loving wife (Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush provides a pocket of warmth and grace) and devoted little dogs. And it transforms him from a figure of scorn to a figure of pity, a trapped man who, when asked to identify his mistakes, can’t name any because he doesn’t know where to begin.