Running time 131 minutes
Written by Stanley Weiser
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeffrey Wright
Oliver Stone’s W., from a screenplay by Stanley Weiser, arrives at a strange time in our nation’s history, when even Iraq and Afghanistan have been pushed off the front pages and away from the TV talking heads by our current doomsday financial crisis. Of course, Mr. Stone, Mr. Weiser and their array of gifted collaborators had no way of knowing before they finished work on their production that the darkest days of the Bush presidency would soon dawn with what now seems like a Herbert Hooverian plunge into the abyss of a worldwide economic collapse. Unfortunately, there is very little discussion of the laissez-faire policies of the Bush administration in W., which might have given the film an aura of prophecy.
Instead, we get a not-entirely-unsympathetic view of George W. Bush in Josh Brolin’s uncanny incarnation of perhaps the most controversial president in our history. Actually, Mr. Brolin is almost as close to the original as the tremendous Tina Fey is to Sarah Palin. He is the linchpin of what seems like a conscious effort to make the 43rd president something more than a Michael Moore caricature.
As Mr. Stone explains his approach in the movie’s production notes: “Regardless of your opinion of George W. Bush, the essence of the movie is to ask questions about the presidency, what happened, and who the man is. How he gets to be president is an amazing story unto itself. At first, he squandered his privileged circumstances. W. explains how he got it back and then what he does with it when he’s President.”
The casting of James Cromwell as W.’s father, George Sr., the 40th president of the United States, is consistent with the non-cartoonish casting of Mr. Brolin as W., as well as that of Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush. Mr. Stone directs these four pillars of the Bush family with a certain degree of sensitivity and tenderness, almost belying his partisan admission that he rushed the film to completion in 46 days so that it could come out in time to influence this year’s election in the direction of the Democratic Party.
But all bets are off when it comes to the writing and direction of the administration’s inner circle, which is shown as complicit in George W. Bush’s overly macho decision to invade Iraq. This band of miscreants includes Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Thandie Newton as Condi Rice, and Jeffrey Wright in a somewhat wishy-washy portrayal of Colin Powell. Mr. Jones’ weasely Truman Capote-like Karl Rove is especially cartoonish, at least in terms of a complete lack of physical resemblance to the old Bush adviser and the new Fox television commentator.
What the film makes crystal clear is the lasting impact of the Oedipal traumas George W. suffered by his father’s favoritism toward his younger son, Jeb. When the first President Bush invades Iraq, and decides, after American and U.N. forces have routed Iraq’s army and liberated Kuwait, not to march to Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein from power, George W. loudly deplores what he perceives as his father’s timidity. He later blames this allegedly wrong decision as the cause of George Sr.’s subsequent loss to Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election.
George W.’s grievances against his father escalates when George Sr. pleads in vain for W. to postpone his run for the governorship of Texas so as not to coincide with Jeb Bush’s running for governor of Florida. Ironically, W. wins and Jeb loses. No matter. W. complains that George Sr. is more disconsolate over Jeb’s defeat than gratified by George’s victory.
In Anthony Tommasini’s interview article with Mr. Stone in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times of Oct. 12, 2008, the director of W. reveals that he cut three fantasy sequences involving Mr. Bush and an actor playing Saddam Hussein: the first in the White House, where Mr. Bush chokes on a pretzel while Saddam is nearby; the second when the president flies over Baghdad on a magic carpet as American bombs rain down on this Arabian Nights city, and Hussein shakes his fist from below; and the third with the Iraqi dictator hurling insults at both George W. and his father.
Why did Saddam wind up on the cutting-room floor? As Mr. Stone explained to Mr. Tommasini, “It was wacky stuff that at the end of the day took us out of the movie.”
Even so, Mr. Stone makes his anti-Iraq-war points without dragging in Saddam Hussein by the scruff of his neck. He is less successful with George W.’s midlife born-again conversion to Christ. The camera has a hard time keeping a straight face as George W. kneels in prayer with Stacy Keach’s evangelical preacher Earle Hudd. It is a long way from Gary Cooper’s Alvin York almost being struck by lightning on a dark and stormy night as a message from God in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) to George W.’s forcing by example his retinue to lower their heads at cabinet meetings, which the president opened with a prayer as if he were the White House chaplain. Indeed, at one point George W. intimates to a subordinate that he is not listening to his own father’s advice, but to that of his Father above, who presumably approved the shock-and-awe bombing campaign in Iraq.
There is one chilling dream scene in which W. goes mano a mano in a brawl with his father over all their differences. The point is that Mr. Stone has made a film of unusual sobriety about a political figure who makes many of us giddy with revulsion. I recommend it to everyone, but I am afraid it will end up as a seedless sermon for the already converted to Bushophobia.