The film is called W., and for a lot of moviegoers, hearing that Oliver Stone was directing a biopic of the still President of the U.S., the W. could have stood for a pleased or outraged What!? Stone made his rep, or his rap sheet, with ferocious retakes of recent American history: the Vietnam War in Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth; the investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination in JFK; and, in Nixon, the life of the only President to resign his office. All those subjects allowed for a certain ambiguity, but Stone a dramatist first, dispassionate chronicler never pushed political views that might have been lopsided but usually resulted in terrific films with an adrenaline rush.
Approaching George W. Bush, a Chief Executive with a shattered record and abysmal approval ratings who's now ignored or avoided by even his fellow Republicans, might seem way too easy a task for Stone. Historians have for years placed Bush at the bottom of presidential rankings, and The Daily Show, considering his legacy, chillingly guessed that Dubya is aiming to be not only our worst President but also our last.
Turns out Stone doesn't want to be the final guy to join the lynch mob. Rather than a denunciation of Bush (hagiography is out of the question), he offers a fairly straightforward life. The film moves simultaneously on two chronological tracks: Bush's life from his Yale undergraduate days in the mid-'60s to his governorship of Texas in the mid-'90s, and his Administration's 2002 preparation to invade Iraq.
Stone gets points for speed and efficiency he shot the picture over 46 days this spring and summer on a tiny $30 million budget and gave it a rich, polished look but not for the scope of his vision. W. isn't tragedy or farce; it's illustrated journalism, based mostly on extant Bush biographies and memoirs of early Bush appointees. All the incidents are there but not the insight. What's missing is the one thing Stone films have never lacked: a point of view.
41 Is Greater Than 43
At first we get hints that Stone is up to his nifty old tricks. It's a hazing session of Yale's Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, where the forced guzzling of whiskey is the gentleman scholar's equivalent of waterboarding. The other pledges are frightened, but Dubya (Josh Brolin, who's game but not great) impresses his brothers by not only rattling off their names but also appending a goofy nickname to each. In two lightning strokes, W. provides a reference point for the Bush Administration's interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects and imagines an early example of Bush's frat-boy camaraderie, later visited with a bullying bluffness on the White House press corps.
That's just smart storytelling, courtesy of screenwriter Stanley Weiser, who worked with Stone on Wall Street, the 1987 "Greed is good" film that speaks more eloquently to our current morass than W. does. The larger tale the movie tells is of a slow-witted alcoholic, the wastrel son of a powerful family who found Jesus and Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and, with these two guiding him, a purpose and propulsion to his life.
But as the film connects the biographical dots, it loses its way. The tone lurches from the sweetness of the George-and-Laura love story (she's played very appealingly by Elizabeth Banks) to the chilling cartoonery of the Iraq-war planning, in which his advisers are sketched in varying styles, from wicked parody (Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice) to creepy acuity (Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney) to an absolving rectitude (Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell). All these scenes show Bush in action but not inside. The person remains an enigma. The movie is an X-ray of an invisible man by the film's end, the W. still stands for Who?
It's easier to identify whom the film would like to be about. That's George Herbert Walker Bush, the forgotten-but-not-gone 41 to his son's 43. As played by the 6 ft. 5 in. (2m) James Cromwell, Poppy Bush looms over W. (and W.) as a commanding, commandeering figure. According to the film, he's the master manipulator who sprang Dubya from jail after a rowdy Yale prank, "took care of" a woman his son didn't want to marry and "pulled strings" to get the boy into Harvard Business School. He hates the damage W. has done to the family name: "Partying, chasing tail, driving drunk. What do you think you are a Kennedy?"
As President, Poppy is depicted as having the strength to use U.S. military might to push Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and the wisdom not the weakness to stop short of Baghdad. Stone seems to admire him more than any other President he's depicted. (In JFK, Kennedy was a hallowed ghost figure.) His Bush Sr. might be a Lyndon Johnson who somehow got the country in and out of Vietnam with a win and few U.S. casualties. This 41 this war hero, this fearless leader could never have been impersonated on Saturday Night Live by Dana Carvey.
Cromwell is exactly the guy for the job; he's played a President three times before in films and on TV. He gives Poppy a gruff machismo that both dominates the film and, given its ostensible protagonist, distorts it. When, toward the end, the octogenarian Poppy is shown muttering sage dismissals of W.'s Iraq escapades, we realize that the film is actually the story of a proud man perpetually disappointed in his son.
An Unexamined Life
Jeb Bush, the "good" son (played by Jason Ritter), is a fleeting presence in W., as is mother Barbara (Ellen Burstyn), and Neil, Marvin and Dorothy are virtual no-shows. The secret sibling is Stone himself, who, like Dubya, came from a wealthy family and entered Yale in 1964. He left after a year and wound up in Vietnam, where his destiny ambushed him. Perhaps the political biography Stone really should put on film is John McCain's.
Well, he went ahead with this fairly judicious docudrama, in the seeming belief that a story with so many melodramatic twists and cataclysmic consequences needs little editorializing. The result is that rare Oliver Stone film that is not exhilarating, or enraging, but boring, because the director doesn't have a fresh take on Bush.
We don't say Dubya's unexamined life his pursuit of devastation policies with such messianic self-assurance is not worth filming. Yes, the tragic hero usually comes to realize his crippling flaws, but maybe the greatest sin of a powerful man is in never, ever doubting himself. W. gives Bush a climactic wrinkle of copelessness, but the movie is mostly content to motor on familiar tracks. Like its central character, it seems never to have questioned itself about its mission or even asked if it had one. For this normally crazy-brilliant auteur, the last and lasting W. has to be Why?