Reviewed by: Themroc

Oliver Stone’s biopic of George W. Bush was apparently rushed through post-production so that it could be released Stateside in time for the 2008 presidential election. Quite why this date was felt to be of such significance eludes me since Bush remains in office until his replacement is inaugurated on January 20th next year and, in any case, the film’s impact on the result of the election was almost certain to be nil. Firstly, because there is very little evidence to suggest that political cinema changes voting behaviour (Michael Moore’s childish broadside Fahrenheit 9/11 forfeited its only excuse for existing when it failed to propel John Kerry into the White House in 2004), and secondly because, contrary to the expectations of those who weren’t paying attention when Stone made Nixon, this isn’t the fiery piece of critical polemic that the twilight days of Bush’s wretched administration might appear to invite. Instead, a director who was once the bête noire of the American right has turned in another sympathetic and occasionally thoughtful portrait of an unpopular Republican President.

When Nixon was released back in 1995, many critics expressed surprise at the fairness with which Stone had portrayed his protagonist, and rightly praised the complexity of Anthony Hopkins’ extraordinary central performance. Nonetheless, an unforgivably manipulative scene during which Nixon talks to the anti-Vietnam War protestors camped at the Lincoln Memorial left the audience in no doubt as to where the director’s sympathies ultimately lay. Yet despite the current political climate and polling figures suggesting that the Iraq invasion has never been more unpopular with the US public, Stone resists the temptation to play to the gallery by introducing a Cindy Sheehan-type character to confront Bush with anti-war pieties. Instead, he and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (also responsible for co-writing Wall Street with Stone) have somehow managed to produce a film about the most divisive American leader of modern times that borders on the apolitical. Stone seems less interested in the arguments over ideology and foreign policy (weapons of mass destruction, enforcement of UN resolutions and the pre-emptive spreading of democracy) than in how an arrogant, lazy and unintelligent man went from rebellious drunk and family black sheep to inhabitant of the Oval Office. His film is about how that journey itself affected the decisions Bush made once there.

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Stone opens with a cabinet discussion regarding the now infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ line Bush used to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea in his January 2002 State of the Union address. From there we flip back and forth in time as Stone inter-cuts the hubristic preparations for war and its bloody, chaotic aftermath with dramatisations of carefully chosen moments in Bush’s life which Stone infers were psychologically responsible for leading him into that conflict: his early days as a feckless ne’er-do-well, his problematic and ultimately destructive relationship with his father, his conversion to evangelical Christianity and marriage to Laura (to whom W cheerfully remarks “You’re open-minded. Much more’n me!”), his first failed run for public office and the successful 1994 run for Texas Governor in which the application of cynical Rovian scare tactics helped to unseat incumbent Ann Richards. Interestingly, given Stone’s own prodigious drug intake and the time he spent as an infantryman serving two tours in Vietnam, neither Bush’s alleged use of cocaine nor his slipperiness in avoiding the draft are either mentioned or alluded to.

Instead, in spite of the narrative’s ostensible fragmentation, we get a pretty conventional arc suggesting that Bush was driven, above all else, by both a barely understood need for his own father’s approval and a perverse anti-authoritarianism which demanded he repudiate his father’s legacy and make his own moral mark on American politics. So, as Stone would have it, the Iraq invasion results primarily not from anxiety produced by the attacks of 9/11, nor a desire to colonise the Middle East, but instead from a need to both avenge the attempt on his father’s life and to correct the mistakes of his father’s own adventure in the Persian Gulf.

To the younger Bush, leaving Saddam Hussein in power – irrespective of the terms of the UN mandate for war – was self-evidently unacceptable. So when the opportunity to revisit the problem presents itself after 9/11, Bush is first and foremost determined to be resolute where his father faltered, and although advisers like VP Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Campaign Guru Karl Rove all offer their strategic and ideological two cents, the film makes clear that these considerations are nothing next to the force of Bush’s own psychological architecture.

So, conspiracy theorists hoping for a tidy portrait of a gullible, naïve puppet manipulated by cynical imperialists far more intelligent than he is, will be disappointed. Although these viewpoints are aired in a contrived, wholly invented and dramatically crass cabinet discussion of the costs, risks and eventual benefits of going to war, one thing the film makes clear is that the responsibility lies solely with George W Bush. Whatever the guiding political considerations that led to the decision to invade, it ultimately happened because George Bush wanted it to. As Bush points out during a lunch with Cheney over which they discuss the possibility of torturing enemy combatants, “I’m the decision-maker here, not you.”

Historically speaking, Stone’s narrow Freudian interpretation of events, whilst interesting and possibly contributive, is pretty dubious stuff, mainly because it downplays the profoundly transformative effect that 9/11 had upon both the political atmosphere of the time and on the character and worldview of Bush in particular. After all, here was a man who had mocked Al Gore’s commitment to “Nation-Building” during the 2000 presidential debates now proselytising for an interventionist project of unprecedented scale and ambition, the aim of which was to spread democracy across the Middle East. But since this enormous ideological conversion is never mentioned, one is left to assume that – as far as real life goes – Stone’s theory has little credibility.

In all likelihood, as is his wont, Stone simply decided to play up the Oedipal aspect of the story because it interested him as a dramatist and storyteller, and downplay or ignore any evidence that contradicted or complicated it. Certainly, it’s a theme to which he has returned repeatedly during his career (as both a director and screenwriter) as a vicarious way of investigating the dysfunctional relationship he had with his own father, and there’s an undeniable relish to the early scenes in which Bush clashes with his father over the latter’s expectations of him that suggest that Stone really does identify with the younger Bush’s frustration and anti-authoritarianism. However, irrespective of considerations of strict historical accuracy, the film’s slightly trite psychology survives scrutiny on its own narrative terms.

Part of the reason for this is the sensitivity and plausibility of Josh Brolin’s performance in the title role. Oliver Stone has always had a knack for canny casting and for getting career best performances out of actors (Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, James Belushi, James Woods, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lopez all spring immediately to mind) and Brolin is no exception. He nails Bush’s curious combination of self-conscious insecurity and swaggering arrogance, but also manages to inhabit the character’s skin in such a way that, even when comically mangling the English language, it never feels like he’s indulging himself at his character’s expense or relaxing into lazy mimicry or caricature. The film’s success as a character study relies for its empathy on the fact that Brolin and Stone really do appear to care about and identify with this man, which helps enormously in terms of transforming a figurehead known to most of us only through halting speeches into the goofily charming and likeable human being Bush is often reported to be in person.

The supporting cast is less impressive, however, and lacks the depth in quality and muscular authority that actors like JT Walsh, James Woods, Paul Sorvino and Ed Harris were able to bring to Nixon. Richard Dreyfuss simply isn’t intimidating enough for Dick Cheney and Jeffrey Wright makes for a pretty wooden and unconvincing Colin Powell. Powell, in particular, is unwisely allowed to reprise the role of flawed but essentially honourable soldier allotted to him by David Hare in Stuff Happens, which is neither particularly accurate nor terribly interesting as it tidily irons out the complexities and contradictions of his own opaque position on the war. Other character actors flit about the edges of the narrative with varying degrees of success – Thandie Newton has nary a line of dialogue as NSA Condi Rice and Ioan Gruffud’s Tony Blair (barely a cameo) is an insult, but I was surprised by what a convincing Barbara Bush Ellen Burstyn made.

Ultimately, though, the problem is less the casting per se, than that these characters, unlike their leader, are portrayed more as crude archetypes or representatives of a particular point of view. Consequently they are not given the room to expose themselves and develop as individuals by a screenplay that refuses to properly investigate the convoluted rivalries and conflicts circulating within the Bush administration before, during and after the invasion. That W seldom allows its focus to drift from its central psychoanalytical thesis means that often the characterisation appears tailored to Stone’s argument rather than the other way around, depriving the universe in which the film takes place of Nixon’s comparable texture and depth. (Surely, for example, if Bush the elder had been as assertive and domineering a personality as depicted here, he would have given Clinton more of a run for his money in 1992.)

But then, in a sense, comparison of the two films’ respective strengths and weaknesses is pointless since Stone has adopted a completely different approach this time, most notably in terms of tone. Nixon is a sprawling epic clocking in at an exhausting 190 minutes performed, shot and edited with an aggression that for a while was Stone’s defining feature. Stone opened Nixon with a Biblical quote and John Williams’ portentous score constantly reminds us of the gravity of the events. Dick Nixon was portrayed as embodying Charles Foster Kane’s uniquely American hubris (the picture is littered with references to Welles’ film) and his downfall was presented as the stuff of high Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.

It’s ironic then that, given the macho posturing to which George W Bush, in particular, is prone, Stone’s take on his Presidency is a far more relaxed and breezy affair. While Nixon’s testosterone-fuelled geo-political discussions were conducted in the shadows of cavernous offices, great Washington landmarks and past American leaders, policy discussions in W occur during relaxed, informal sunlit strolls around Bush’s Crawford ranch.

In fact, at times, in spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, Stone tends more towards the light comedic tone employed by Robert Altman in his political TV satire Tanner ’88 than towards the anger and reckless urgency that characterised his work in the 1980s and 1990s. Particularly surprising is his pleasingly ironic use of music. There are instances where the music, either scored or chosen, seems to deliberately undercut the seriousness or emotional truth of a scene to disarming effect, as when Bush and Laura first meet at a barbeque and a drippy piano score appears to mar the matter-of-factness of the dialogue and performances, or when Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World wafts unnervingly over the hotly contested Niger-“Yellow Cake” Uranium reference in Bush’s pre-war State of the Union address. It’s almost as if Stone, in spite of the generosity with which he has chosen to depict Bush as a person, nonetheless finds the whole notion of the W presidency so surreal given the colossal stakes that only a tragi-comic approach can properly capture its absurdity.

All of this makes W sound like a confused and infuriating dog’s breakfast of a film. And yet, in the end I found myself won over by the charm of its various creative idiosyncrasies and by the charisma of Brolin’s performance. I also felt a sense of relief that in terms of recent form this was a huge improvement on Stone’s last two efforts, Alexander and World Trade Center – two films vying for the title of Most Boring And Unwatchable Release of their respective years. It’s hard to celebrate W as anything approaching that critical cliché “a return to form” – it lacks the exhilarating craziness of Stone’s most exciting work and I suspect that the years will not be kind to it. But, in the meantime, for those wanting an entertaining romp through recent American history, this strange but curiously rewarding film comes recommended.

Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2008
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The life of US President George W Bush, as seen by Oliver Stone.
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Director: Oliver Stone

Writer: Stanley Weiser

Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Ioan Gruffudd, Thandie Newton, Jason Ritter, Sayed Badreya, Dennis Boutsikaris

Year: 2008

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Hong Kong, Germany, UK, Australia


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