I recently saw “W.”, the latest film by director Oliver Stone, which gave a biographical look at the life and presidency of George W. Bush. I had wanted to see the film since its release in theaters in October of 2008, so I was marginally excited when I finally got the chance. My interest stemmed from a couple of issues:
First of all, I am completely baffled by the material of Oliver Stone. I am a big fan of Stone’s work on Born on the Fourth of July (director), Natural Born Killers (director), Any Given Sunday (director), and Scarface (screenwriter). However, I also happened to hate his work on The Doors (director), World Trade Center (director) and the historically-horrific Alexander (director); I would prefer to spend three hours of my life getting a mani-pedi with Paris Hilton, listening to her talk about her favorite lip-glosses and how much she hates poor people rather than have to sit through Alexander for a second time – it was that bad. So with my mixed feelings about Stone’s work in the past, I was interested to see how this installment turned out.
A second reason I was curious about “W.” was because Stone is a known Bush-hater, and I wanted to see what angle he took when making the film. I knew it could go one of two ways: Stone could either take the objective route, accurately tracking the life of George W. Bush (the ups and downs, successes and failures), or, as I assumed he would do, Stone could take a completely biased look at the life of Bush, preying on the numerous low-points and displaying his distaste for Bush by making the 8-year presidency his own personal port-a-potty. Stone has been accused in the past of making movies that were not historically or biographically accurate (Alexader, The Doors, JFK, Midnight Express), so I was anticipating cheap-shots and exaggerated accounts of Bush’s time in office. However, Stone did not take the route that I assumed he would…or so he says.
Before seeing the movie, I read a quote in which Stone stated, “I want a fair, true portrait of the man…It will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors.” Whether you believe Stone’s statement or not (I didn’t then and still don’t now), I appreciate that he was at least saying he would attempt to make an accurate and objective film. I felt it would have been extremely unfair (albeit extremely easy) to point out only the shortcomings and deficiencies of Bush’s two-terms, and that an accurate depiction of the Bush presidency would be the only respectable option. I am not George W. Bush’s “#1 fan”, but I also do not despise him the way that the main-stream media does. I feel it’s obvious that the man made mistakes while in office, although I don’t think that warrants a film portraying him as a national pariah. But in the end, whether Oliver Stone was trying to report accurately on the former president or just completely tear him down, I felt his film failed to make its point. From either approach, the movie missed the mark.
If Stone was trying to produce an accurate, biographical account of the man’s life, he should have focused more on the time Bush spent as President and the decisions he made during his eight years in office. Instead, Stone appeared to be enamored with two areas of Bush’s life: his stint with alcoholism as a young-adult, as well as his sketchy and somewhat strained relationship with his father, President George H.W. Bush. He also only covered roguhly four years of Bush’s stint in office, from about 2002 to 2006. Stone avoided the first two years of Bush’s initial term, which was the high point of his administration, brought on by his strong response to the tragedies of 9/11. The lone aspect of the presidency that was featured in the film dealt with the decision to invade Iraq in early 2003 and the events and repercussions that branched off from that decision. The film essentially ignored both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which were huge features in Bush’s reign over the executive branch. But even with the interpretation of the Iraq War, the actual time spent on Bush’s “in-office years” seemed minimal.
Stone spent a lot of time examining Bush during his young-adulthood, leading up to his decision to run for Congress in Texas. He placed a great deal of emphasis on Bush’s heavy drinking and “rebel-esque” style of life during and directly following his college days. Stone then jumped forward to age 40, when Bush becomes a born-again Christian, gives up drinking and trys to move his life in the right direction. Bush then joins his father’s campaign for the presidency and plays a role in his winning of the election. Then, Stone once again breezes over portions of Bush’s life, mainly his time as owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, his decision to run for Governor of Texas, and even his election in 2000 and the controversy surrounding it.
Essentially, the movie delves only into Bush’s life during his 20s, his time spent on his father’s campaign, and his decisions on the Iraq War, jumping back and forth between these periods throughout the film. Stone subsequently adds the father-son relationship aspect to each of these parts, as well. In fact, it feels like Stone’s main focus and objective in the movie is to show how dysfunctional and uneven the rapport is between the two men. Bush Sr. is constantly disappointed by his son and his decisions in life, whether it be drinking, failing to settle on a job, running for Congress and Governor, or wanting to work in baseball (at least initially), in turn forcing his son to grow angry and bitter towards him. Bush Sr. spends the entire movie ashamed of George W. and the bad reputation he brings to the family name. He has an obvious biased toward his younger son, Jeb, and finds great fault in the majority of W.’s political decisions. The entire fixation seemed extremely over-dramatized and grew more and more brutal as the film progressed. It was all very “Cat’s In the Cradle.”
To say that the film put forth a complete and accurate, biographical look at George W. Bush would be wrong. Instead, it examined mainly Bush’s change from alcoholic to Christian, his poor relationship with his father, and the missteps of his administrations handling of the Iraq War. A great deal of the “Bush story” was simply omitted from the movie. Stone may believe that the biography is complete, but his product does not back him up.
With that said, if Stone was actually more concerned with taking shots at Bush and exposing him as a national failure and scapegoat, then I still feel he still missed the boat again. The film’s acting and character development came off as much too “sitcom-ish” to seriously tear the man down. Instead of making a legitimate case against Bush, as a President and a person, Stone instead played the “Bush is dumb” card, as if we hadn’t seen that before. Josh Brolin’s portrayal of the 43rd President was more an impression of Will Ferrell impersonating Bush rather than a true depiction of Bush himself. Stone solely attempted to make Bush look slightly stupid and insecure. In fact, the workings of the executive branch depicted Bush as somewhat incompetent, but mainly more removed from the decision making process all together.
Stone was constantly making Vice President Dick Cheney out to be the main villain, as he was always pushing for the invasion of Iraq and the war as a means of aiding his affiliation with the oil companies. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was simply Cheney’s “yes-man”, facilitating and confirming each of Cheney’s requests (demands?), with CIA Director George Tenet and Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice just nodding in accordance. Stone also cast Karl Rove as the brains (or lack thereof) behind President Bush, influencing and encouraging all of Bush’s decisions and thoughts throughout his entire political career. In actuality, Stone often made Bush seem like the victim, dragged down by Cheney’s controlling narcissism and Rove’s ill-guided advice; Bush merely became a pawn in their game, a figure head for Cheney and Rove to attach their puppet strings to. I would also note that Stone spent a decent amount of time making Secretary of State Colin Powell out to be the lone bright spot of the Bush administration. He was opposed to every questionable decision and often argued against the vilified Vice President. According to Stone, Powell apparently made no mistakes and aided in none of the missteps made by Bush and his cabinet. Any chance this was connected to Powell’s open support for Obama during the current-President’s campaign? Yeah, I think so too.
But when all was said and done, Stone failed to seriously and successfully attack the former Commander and Chief. He attempted to over-expose Bush’s alcoholism, over-exaggerate the shaky relationship with his father (which was capped off by a ridiculous dream-sequence of the two boxing in the Oval Office), and satirize his mid-life acceptance of Christianity, all while beating the same old dead horse that Bush was a stupid cowboy from Texas who couldn’t pronounce a four-syllable word to save his life. Nothing new, accurate, or deeply damaging was presented to us. Stone relied on the basic stereotypes against Bush, and at the same time placed a great deal of the blame on the people around him rather than on W. himself. You were more likely to walk away feeling sorry for the man than being angry at him.
Oliver Stone’s true intentions are still unclear. Maybe he wanted to explore the life and times of George Bush. Maybe he wanted to explore only the mistakes and transgressions of George Bush. Either way, his efforts came up short – he accomplished neither of those two ambitions. And if somehow, for some reason, those weren’t his objectives, then what was he trying to prove? What point was he trying to make? Because whatever it was, it was certainly lost on me.
In the end, the only thing that may have tied George W. Bush and the film together was the air of uncertainty and incompletion that surrounded both of them…oh, and possibly the approval ratings.
Thanks for reading