Nostalgic for the days of W.? Well, Oliver Stone’s biopic of the man born on third base who thought he hit a triple, and partied his way from frat boy to Governor to the only leader of the free world nearly assassinated by a pretzel, will give you a sympathetic picture of the man and a critical one of the President. Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Banks both do incredible jobs portraying the first couple, and the rest of the cast varies from James Cromwell’s solid Daddy Bush and Geoffrey Wright’s fantastic Colin Powell to Richard Dreyfuss, who managed to become Dick Cheney through some pact with Satan.
Oliver Stone sees the Bush story sympathetically because there are similarities in their pasts, and perhaps he tells the tale so well because he understands him. Both were born to powerful fathers who were hard to please and perhaps impossible to live up to. George W. Bush had the added burden of a successful brother Jeb, and the film posits he was driven to ambition while seeking his father’s approval. We see everything from Dubya’s perspective, and Stone wisely avoids any “Mr X” characters or revisionism. W. tells a tale with things we may already know, together gives us a view with much greater depth.
We meet George when he’s being hazed as a frat pledge; follow him through myriad disappointments of his father, and his famous failures. Daddy (played to perfection by James Cromwell as the New England aristocrat) is always there to bail him out, but also tear him down for needing it. When Dubya sees how much approval Jeb gets for following Dad into politics, he tries his hand at it as well- but gets torn apart as a carpetbagger, “out-Texaned and out-Jesused,” as he puts it. And he vows that will never happen again. Enter Karl Rove (the always terrific Toby Jones, of The Mist and Infamous) to help with the a-Texanin’ and a-Jesusin’.
From here we see the crafting of a figurehead. He crafts the easy Texan, the guy you’d wanna have a beer with. But you can’t have a beer with W.; you’ve got to have an O’Doul’s. His hard-drinking days are well recounted, but we see little struggle with overcoming it. He shows up at A.A. one day, and after a moving speech by the preacher (Stacy Keach) he stays after. From then on he is born again, and the only ribbing comes from his father. It’s a decision that in the end, helped catapult him to the Presidency on the votes of evangelicals, who abandoned his father for apparent “neglect.” His father’s failure to be re-elected is shown with pathos, but W. blames his father for not listening to him and appealing to the religious right.
His father’s loss and decision to not invade Baghdad weighed heavily on W.’s shoulders, and the real meat of the movie involves the decision to invade Iraq, with Colin Powell arguing for U.N. action and Cheney continually repeating the threat WMD’s and trying to link them to Nigerian yellowcake. The only scenes we see without W. are of the first Iraq War- after the blitzkrieg strike, we see Cheney, Powell and the first President Bush agreeing that pushing on to Baghdad is a bad idea. Ten years later, Cheney has changed his mind, and Bush 2 wants to finish what Daddy couldn’t do. The pressure on CIA director George Tenet to produce U.S.-based human intel to prove what Cheney already believed- that foreign intel on the yellowcake and WMDs was irrefutable- was enormous, and while it is beyond the scope of the film, he resigned in 2004 when no such WMDs were found.
A recurring image in the film is of George W. Bush alone in the outfield, the sun in his eyes, as a fly ball soars toward his glove. He was a son who grew up in a competitive and aristocratic family with a father who was both a war hero and a successful politician, when he only had a history of failures- as an oil man, a financier, manager of a baseball team. When he got into Harvard and Yale, his mother congratulates him but his father sneers, “who do you think pulled the strings to get him in?” The pressure to show up Jeb, and even his own father was enormous- and when he became President, it was something he could be easily talked into. In the beginning, I wanted to have a beer with W.; I voted for him. In the end, his personal failings- his deep need to both impress and surpass his father- led him to drag the country into a nation-building exercise in the Middle East at the cost of trillions, countless Iraqi lives, and over 4,000 American ones so far.
If you hate the man, the movie gives you plenty of flubs to enjoy. If you loved him, this is the most sympathetic portrayal you’re likely to get anytime soon. Josh Brolin gives an excellent, nuanced performance that is no caricature. While it is still too soon for me to feel true sympathy for the President who took us from worldwide success in taming Afghanistan and then blinked when capturing Osama bin Laden seemed in sight, I did feel some for the boy who grew up in the shadow of a demanding patriarch. Or maybe it’s because I just watched The Lord of the Rings with Milky, and we were talking about Denethor, Faramir and Boromir a lot.