I was 18 years old, still in high school, when George W. Bush was inaugurated president. I will be nearly 27 when he leaves office. He is the president of my adulthood so far. He’s my generation’s Nixon, or, if you’re in your 40s, its Reagan. So it’s tough for me watch and evaluate W., Oliver Stone’s well-crafted, nuanced, and overall sympathetic biopic about him, without some feelings getting in the way.
It’s that “sympathetic” part that I have a problem with. But that’s my issue, not the movie’s.
Right from the get-go, there’s a problem with making a relatively straight movie about George W. Bush, especially without the aid of a few post-presidency buffer-zone years. Never mind the fiasco of a war or the breakdown of Democratic checks and balances that he has left in his wake. He is, and always has been, kind of a joke as a character. The 43rd president, as middle-of-the-road comedians have proven ad nauseum since he took office, is tailor-made for broad slapstick, from the ever-present, vaguely confused look in his eyes to his famous grammatical slip-ups to his phony, over-the-top Texas machismo. How can you make a movie about this man, at this point in history, without slipping into parody or preachiness? I mean, the accent alone.
The key to making a watchable film here, for both the filmmaker and the star, was restraint, something that’s always been a problem for Oliver “How can I make this not make sense?” Stone. The story of Bush has enough comedy and tragedy just presented straight on. And Stone recognized that, never once resorting to his usual frenetic editing sorcery or his penchant for crazy conspiracy theories.
And lead actor Josh Brolin pulls Bush off nicely. He nails it—his voice, his gait, his mannerisms, even his sometimes creative take on the English language. And he does Bush without “doing Bush.”
In terms of framing the story, the film is similar to Stone’s Nixon, with two plots, the biography and the presidency, running simultaneously throughout. The film begins in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, with Bush and his inner circle—Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), among others. The men are planning the 2002 “Axis of Evil” State of the Union Address. It’s right here we start to see the personalities of these people as they’ll be played throughout the movie. Rove is snide and scheming, almost always framed standing just behind Bush. (Get it?) Rice is a sycophant, a true believer to a frightening degree. Powell is intelligent and reserved, the only voice of reason throughout, though ultimately he defers to presidential power. And Cheney is a loud and belligerent neo-con ideologue, standing off to the side, only getting involved in order to lash out at someone. Sounds familiar, right? We already know and love these one-dimensional characters. They’re all played very well, but they’re just there to push the story forward.
The film then jumps to the backstory of Bush the wild college drunk, and that’s where we really get into the meat. In essence, as we see all along, this is the story of Bush’s relationship with his dad and how that will shape him and his political career. Played here by James Cromwell, this is not the obnoxious, nasal, repetitive Saturday Night Live elder Bush. Cromwell’s Bush is a noble, thoughtful politician who is disappointed with his brash, hotheaded son.
Bush and his father butt heads throughout, almost coming to blows in one scene when the son returns to the family home from a drunken night of partying with his 15-year-old brother Marvin. Bush the younger threatens to go “mano a mano” with his father. This is a true story.
Bush wants to please his father. And that drives his political skyrocket. That is, it does right up to when he sees his father emasculated, crying in front of the TV after losing the 1992 election. This is where he recognizes his opportunity to outshine him, saying that if he had just gone into Baghdad and “taken out the son of a bitch,” he would have had a second term, which seems, again, too brash and hotheaded to work. Right?
Cut to 2003.
Stone shows Bush as a man rife with insecurity. He wants to get out from the shadow of his highly respected statesman of a father and his more capable younger brother. He’s also impulsive and easily manipulated by the opportunists around him, people like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney who piggyback on his folksy charisma to further their own careers and political agendas. And that’s fun to watch, in theory. The story of such a powerful man—who’s still just a man—too wrapped up in his own legacy to notice that he’s being screwed around by his closest allies makes for great fiction. Unfortunately, it also makes for tragic fact. Either way, it’s a good story.