Cast your mind back to the really early nineties and Dallas’s (the soap) final episode where JR Ewing goes through an It’s Wonderful Life adventure courtesy of his guardian devil. Remember that bit when Cliff Barnes becomes President of the United States? Yeah? Well, Oliver Stone’s W is like a retake of Dallas where a curious hybrid of JR and Cliff, only less sympathetic and smart takes a torturous winding road to the White House.
Josh Brolin is now Hollywood’s go-to guy for a Texan man’s man, and here he delivers an oddly uneven pastiche of a multitude of Bush impressions. In its totality I could never quite decide whether this was supposed to be a satirical comedy in the tradition of Saturday Night Live or a biting insight into the motivations of the early twenty first century’s most divisive political figure.
Timing is everything with movies; this film was fast tracked to tie in with the final days of the Bush presidency. It has none of the benefits that time allows for perspective and revaluation based on historical objectivity, but has all the disadvantages of a film caught in the emotion and enmity that so many people in the world have towards George Dubya Bush.
I have to admit that I’m no fan of Bush, but whereas millions of people around the world are confounded by how Americans could vote in this guy twice I recently came to an epiphany as to why. While watching BBC world’s full coverage of Dubya’s final White House Press conference, where, perhaps for the first time I watched the man for more than ten minutes, I came to understand his previous appeal to voters. The guy does have a sense of humor, a way with people and a demeanor that isn’t aloof and detached like so many of the Democrat candidates that had been fielded against him in previous elections. Jones’ Karl Rove figure in the movie putting it succinctly when he said – Bush you’re the kind of guy ordinary folk want to have a drink with in a bar.
I also believe that to say Bush is complete idiot is also miscalculation of a man who went from being a frat boy screw up / alcoholic to Governor of Texas and then President. Sure, being born in to political royalty has its advantages, but nevertheless there had to be something else within the man that could carry that determination and tenacity. One of the big issues of the film for me is how Stone plays Brolin’s Bush as a bit of an idiot too much Will Ferrell’s Step Brothers’ routine and not enough, JR Ewing you might say. Brolin’s portrayal falls too much into the former category when some more subtly and seriousness might have better served the story.
Story, story – what is the story? The structure and pacing of this movie often fill at times rushed, uneven, and arbitrary. It begins with a fictional Oval Room meeting discussing Bush’s initial plans to invade Iraq, and then begins some messy back and forth sequences using the lead up to the invasion as the framing story to tell Bush’s life story.
What’s pure fiction and what’s faction is hard to say, and I’m not sure I even really care that much, however Stone does wisely focus on the archetypes here. Dubya is a hard drinking Texan trust fund guy, who’s unable to hold down any job, and frequently ends up in the slammer or getting in to trouble with party girls looking for an easy ticket. He’s a directionless character of untapped potential who doesn’t quite know how to break free from the looming shadow of his father, then Director of the CIA. It’s the classic arc that Oliver focuses on here, and it’s these sequences in particular where Brolin’s character shows the most depth and growth. In part that’s due to the strong performance given by James Cromwell, who does a decent job of avoiding the pitfalls of doing a Rory Bremner or a Will Ferrell in a comedy routine. Whether or not Dubya nearly had a fist fight with his dad is besides the point, the emphasis here is looking at how he went through his transformation into Darth Vader from a whiny Texan silver spoon brat, not on the historical accuracy of family squabbles.
As this story develops, a chance for Bush to mature is given to him through the introduction to Laura played affectingly by Elizabeth Banks, who’s his archetypal opposite, and the balance that he needs to find the momentum for his future achievements. Somehow these scenes play naturalistically and the intimacy of some of the domestic sequences allows the movie a chance to gain a sense of reality away from all of the pseudo- comedy White House scenes.
The White House framing sequence just felt ill judged and plain wrong in the context of what is supposed to be a serious study of a man who’s decisions and presidency caused so many conflicts and deaths over the last eight years. According to Empire magazine’s preview Stone said that he’d hired ‘feel-a-likes’ rather than ‘look-a-likes’, that’s all well and good so why do most of them appear to be doing their worst Saturday night live impressions of Bush’s cronies? Newton’s Condi falls somewhere between the Adam’s Family and a stock vampire from Buffy. Wright’s Powell is just plain weird and forced. Ioan Gruffudd’s Blair is effete and school boyish - not a patch on Michael Sheen’s version. Finally, Scott Glenn’s Rummy looks like he’s got a bad case of conjunctivitis with his continual squint.
Perhaps only Dreyfuss’s Cheney and Jone’s Rove really work as characters here with a couple of decent scenes where you can really relish Cheney’s hunger for power and war, and Rove’s delight at having a chance to mold a Bush. In those scenes you get a sense that they are trying to control Bush with the subtly that Brolin’s take is devoid in, yet there are hints that Bush detects these plays for manipulating him, and reverts back to frat boy Alpha male, slapping them back down, reminding both that he’s the president, not they. It only happens a couple of times, and it's a shame that Bush’s emotional intelligence didn’t come to foreground more often.
In its totality I felt that I was watching not one, but two films both with vastly different tones and styles.
The biopic material largely works thanks to great chemistry amongst the Bush clan. In particular Brolin and Cromwell really feed off each other, and the journey both characters go on is real and emotional. Bush Sr’s defeat is exceptionally well played by the elder actor, as is Brolin’s transformation from bum to Texan Governor.
Had the style and manner of the movie’s present been more restrained less comedy more West Wing, then I reckon this might have been a real achievement in capturing the flavor of Dubya’s rise and how his Hubris lead to disaster in Iraq. Instead we get a film lacking in real bite with curious choices of timing and omissions, rather than focusing on WMD and Iraq, why not 9/11 and the election? Why were such critical character moments left out? The WMD and the end of hostilities in Iraq always felt to me like a black comedy in both reality and the movie. Why couldn’t Stone have focused on 9/11 and indeed how Bush won the election through the Supreme Court decision? That’s the kind of material that would have lead to some real drama in keeping with the tone of the back-story. It’s as if Stone wants his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he touches on the seriousness and darkness of his previous political epics, then on the other he wants to do his version of Dr Strangelove, but only goes half way there before hitting the proverbial wall.