Love him or loathe him? Oliver Stone's flawed biopic of the 43rd president cannot decide
No Western political figure in recent memory has inspired the satirists’ rapier wit like George W. Bush - particularly striking when you consider he’s still in office. So when everyone’s already got a ‘Bush-isms’ poster in their room and cartoonists have long exhausted his comedic value, what’s the point of another joke?
This is the issue that Oliver Stone’s W., following his earlier political films JFK and Nixon, struggles with and is ultimately undone by. It offers little new in the way of personal evaluation, playing out characters and stories that we are all so familiar with by now.
Josh Brolin’s George Bush is a reckless young man, unable to hold down a job or please his father, who finds God, quits the booze and wins the presidency. Cheney is the leering hawk, a scheming villain who believes his own delusions. Powell is the reluctant invader. Blair, the ineffectual Brit. So far, so typical.
Stanley Weiser’s script and Stone’s direction are unwilling to dig deep and provide interesting characters or dramatic intensity. Structurally, too, the film is all over the place, veering between a contemporary Bush struggling with Iraq and a boozy kid dancing on bars.
The aim is presumably to show dramatic contrast, but both strands lack anything resembling effective drama. The movie skims along the surface of conventional approaches to the man and his administration, offering light, television drama vignettes instead of real progression or comment.
Stone seems unsure about what to do with Bush. The typical audience desire for comedic savageness is vindicated with a few light-hearted jibes at his impatience and folksy manner, and the standard lines of attack – his snarky laugh, his distaste of big words and his fondness for speaking nonsense – are followed.
But it doesn’t really work, because the film’s script, and Brolin’s earnest performance, makes Bush occasionally, heretically, likeable. He’s boorish and ignorant, but he’s authentically so - he’s just trying his hardest to do his best for his father and his God.
When he’s born again there’s no sense of ridicule. Rather, it’s an honest man struggling with his own fecklessness. And when it becomes clear after the invasion of Iraq that there aren’t any WMDs to be found, his frustration with his bungling team seems genuine.
He’s led astray, the film suggests, by the likes of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, played perfectly by a ratty Toby Jones and an almost feral Richard Dreyfuss. They are the few highlights of the cast though - Thandie Newton plays a bizarre and intelligible Condoleezza Rice, and Jeffrey Wright’s Powell is a murmuring weirdo.
It’s astonishing how Stone and Weiser can treat a legacy as controversial and essentially dramatic as George Bush with so much anomie, melodrama and cliché. What about the dodgy Florida recount? And where’s 9/11? The latter is an especially breathtaking omission, the pivotal moment of Bush’s presidency happens off-stage. The audience is left to fill in the film’s blanks, but are not given the necessary substance to complete the task.
Where’s the hubris? Where’s the in-fighting? Where’s the fanaticism? Where’s, you know, the drama? Ultimately, the only really interesting thing about the film is its lack of anything interesting. Leaving W. with a final impression much like its subject’s - sheer irrelevance