No doubt when Oliver Stone first said his portrait of George W Bush would be fair, many sniggered. Stone is not famous for treating politicians fairly - particularly conservative ones. His treatment of Nixon was heavily criticised. His film JFK carried the assumption that it was conservative forces in the government which had Kennedy killed.
So the only really surprising thing about W, Stone’s biopic about the younger Bush, is that it is fair. Bush is so cartoonish in his behaviour that the temptation to make a Mike Moore-style caricature film must be overwhelming. Stone is too classy for that.
Instead, Stone portrays his subject as a flawed human being but one with whom the audience can sympathise. The central theme is W’s deep yearning for his father’s approval coupled with the fatalistic assumption that he will never obtain it. W’s rise to power is not the result of desperation to obtain his father’s approval. Rather, his success is tinged with the sadness which that tortured relationship brings.
Josh Brolin plays the eponymous character brilliantly. Sympathetic to Stone’s vision, Brolin emulates Bush’s mannerisms without parodying him. Brolin is easy to believe in the role, taking Bush from the drunken carouser, through the moment of clarity when he loses his race for Congress, to the focus gained through finding God and getting off the booze.
While Brolin is well cast, one gets the sense that this was more good luck than good management because, frankly, most of the rest of the cast is phoning it in.
James Cromwell as the first President Bush makes no attempt to reproduce Bush Sr on the screen. He just plays himself. He could just as easily have been playing the corrupt police chief from LA Confidential or the Duke of Edinburgh in The Queen. At least in that movie he made the effort (albeit hopelessly) to sound a bit like old Phil.
Richard Dreyfuss overdoes Dick Cheney. He spends a lot of his time trying to look like he is a quiet malevolent presence, but that’s what he looks like: someone trying to look that way.
The truly bizarre turn is from Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. The script doesn’t help Ms Newton, defining Rice as something akin to a ditzy secretary rather than the obviously talented heavyweight she is, but Ms Newton plays up to it. Her Condy Rice is a hunched-over, clipboard-carrying sidekick. She doesn’t advise. She squeaks approval. Apart from that, her main role seems to be to sneer at Colin Powell whenever he resists the proposition that Iraq should simply be invaded for the purposes of securing America’s oil supply.
Unsurprisingly, this film dwells heavily upon the Iraqi adventure. It doesn’t hint at the proposition that oil was the real purpose of the war. It comes right out and says it. In one scene, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice take turns at stepping the President through a PowerPoint presentation detailing why the US should colonise the Middle East to secure its oil supply.
It is in this scene that we see Stone’s most important insight into Bush’s character. Bush doesn’t regard himself as particularly smart, but he thinks he knows what people want. He is, as Karl Rove says at one point, the guy that the voters want to have a beer with. So, when Cheney et al proudly presented a detailed argument on strategy for conquering the Middle East, Bush congratulates them on their “big thoughts” but reminds them that they need arguments the “folks” will understand. Tell them there are “nukes” and “WMD”.
It’s almost as if the proposition being presented by the director is that the President didn’t lie to the voters. He just gave them an argument which he thought they could understand. He knew what he could understand and assumed most people were like him.
The other important character in this film is God. He is clearly W’s co-pilot. Young George turns to him after he loses the first election in which he participates. Having been apostrophised by his Democratic opponent as immoral, he swears to his friends he’ll never be “out-Christianed” again. His newfound focus sees him run his father’s successful campaign for the Presidency before securing election as the Governor of Texas.
It is in the Governor’s office in Texas that W informs his priest that he has heard God’s call to seek the Presidency. It is part of God’s plan. Then, every meeting in the Whitehouse is “closed out” with silent prayer.
This film has its flaws, but, largely due to Brolin, it is well worth seeing. As I listened to some of my fellow movie-goers, it was apparent to me that they were just waiting for the next time W said something stupid (“misunderestimated” or “is our children learning?”) so they could snigger at how much smarter they were than W. That is one obstacle the movie faces - there aren’t many people who will see this movie who won’t already have made up their minds about its subject. But if you go into it with an open mind (as Brolin and Stone obviously did) you may take another look at G W Bush and accept the possibility he is not the one-dimensional twit of popular wisdom.