Being a Brief Review of the New George Bush Biopic
Josh Brolin portrays George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s new biopic, W., as a bandy-legged welterweight who is, in his earlier years, frequently drunk and, as President, seemingly punch-drunk as he staggers his way to the end of public utterances he never should have started.
It’s a brilliant portrayal that rarely gives in to the temptation to caricature the President by taking his public persona and blowing up its least attractive characteristics. As foolish as Bush often looks in this film, he resembles the actual Bush that all of us know, rather than the cartoon version that most of his critics have endeavored to draw.
Throughout the movie, Brolin doesn’t impersonate Bush as much as he embodies him. And the embodiment is psychological as well as physical. As few of his legion of critics have ever managed to do, Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser attempt to actually get inside of Bush and understand what and who (principally his father) has motivated him throughout his very curious life.
Sure, Stone and Brolin accurately portray Bush as an undeserving child of privilege and a slightly dimwitted frat boy. But W. also acknowledges that Bush is something more than that. The Dubya of this movie is also a genuinely repentant sinner, a loving husband, a man of iron will and unwavering certitude, a mostly dutiful son who’s haunted by his father’s legacy, and an uncynical believer in the power of human liberty. In Stone’s telling, there were no “lies” about WMDs because everyone in the White House really believed Saddam had them, and the Iraq war from Bush’s perspective was genuinely (mostly) about defeating an axis of evil rather than ensuring access to oil.
It’s a surprising stance for a filmmaker who indulged in wild conspiracy theories in his last movie with a President’s initials in the title, JFK. But anyone who saw Stone’s more recent movie World Trade Center, which thankfully avoided the temptation to blame 9/11 on anyone other than the actual perpetrators, Al Qaeda, won’t be surprised by the evidence in W. of Stone’s maturation as a thinker.
Among its other virtues, W. is brilliantly cast, beginning with Brolin, who is impeccable; Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, who is positioned as the movie’s genuine hero, at least until he buckles under and makes his infamous UN speech; Dennis Boutsikaris as Paul Wolfowitz; and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. The only false note is Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice, who is portrayed here as a frail, toadying simpleton — the kind of cartoonish portrayal that the movie otherwise successfully avoids.
W. is ultimately a fairly minor movie, and doesn’t come to any resounding conclusions about Bush’s presidency or American society. (Bush’s vow, after losing his first electoral contest, to never be “out-Texan’d or out-Christian’d again” is the closest the movie gets to peering into the heart of the American psyche.) There’s nothing in the movie about any of Bush’s siblings other than Jeb; the events of 9/11 itself and its direct aftermath are never shown; and there is nothing whatsoever about any of Bush’s activities as President other than those related to the war in Iraq.
Ultimately, that may be the way it should be — pretty much everyone agrees that Bush’s legacy, for good or ill, will be defined by Iraq. And certainly there are few people other than steadfast Republic ideologues who would rate Bush’s presidency a resounding success. Stone certainly would not.
But in this surprisingly sympathetic movie, Oliver W. Stone at least grants George W. Bush what he’s deserved all along — an effort at understanding. Ironically, if more of his critics had approached him as Stone does here, as an actual human being, they might have been more successful early on in convincing the American public that he was far too much of a lightweight to be the President.
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