This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 27, 2008 - I wondered what Oliver Stone was up to in creating "W.," his problematic but fascinating biopic about our 43rd president. Released just before the election that will make George W. Bush the lamest of lame ducks, it has only limited claim to factuality. The crucial meetings leading up to the Iraq War are pure speculation, though screenwriter Stanley Weiser's dialogue rings true.
The film must persuade us as fiction, then, and it certainly is a compelling story: a very ordinary man born into an extraordinary family still and always trying to please his father. It's especially poignant - and possibly helpful - during this election season, when voters are weighing the characters of Bush's successor.
Oliver Stone obviously loves American history. Consider most notably "Platoon" (1987), "Wall Street" (1988), "Born on the Fourth of July" (1991), "JFK" (1993) and "Nixon" (1995). His two previous presidential portraits had the benefit of considerable hindsight, which "W." cannot offer. What it does provide is a convincing analysis of the personality, motivation and habits of mind of a man who has left much devastation in his wake. This film was finished, obviously, even before the current financial meltdown; viewers will have that additional lens to understand the deep failures of this administration.
By the way, if you think this film is just a piece of Bush-bashing and not a serious character study, think again. My companion remarked after it was over, "I think they let him off easy."
Josh Brolin stars as George W. Bush and does not flinch from vulgarisms, swaggering and terrible table manners unworthy of his patrician upbringing. Brolin is dead-on in expressing W.'s barely contained animal energy, which becomes only slightly more muted as he ages. The story moves around in time and place, beginning and ending with the protagonist alone in an empty baseball stadium (presumably the Texas Rangers' park in Arlington).
The oldest scene is W.'s fraternity hazing at Yale, where a bunch of entitled young boors humiliate the recruits - all but W., who wisecracks by giving them all nicknames. As we know, this habit continued later in life. How about "Turdblossom" for Karl Rove? "W." does provide a few laughs despite its seriousness. Like most Oliver Stone movies, it is too long and, somehow, excessive.
We know altogether too well the history of Bush's presidency and the Iraq War. Less known are details of his earlier life, starting in college. James Cromwell plays George H.W. Bush, the dominant figure in W.'s psyche. Though he was the firstborn, George W. Bush always felt that their father preferred his brother Jeb. And why not? Even into his 30s W. was the problem child. He was a poor student and, somehow, his elite education didn't seem to take. His father got him out of jail, made a pregnant girlfriend go away, found him a new job every time he quit (often), and pulled even more strings to get him into Harvard Business School.
W. finally quit drinking and "straightened out," but W. felt that nothing he did really pleased his father. We can ache a little for him. Too bad we're all living with the results of this filial dynamic.
W.'s mother, Barbara, is played by the marvelous Ellen Burstyn. She is a powerful but not pivotal figure. Elizabeth Banks plays Laura, and the immortal Stacy Keach is the Rev. Earl, who helped W. become "born again." (The cross on his belt buckle is an inspired touch.) The scenes of Bush's White House are electrifying. Here they are, the look-alikes: Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice and, of course, many more. These scenes made me a bit uncomfortable. I didn't mind having high-level discussions simulated in "Thirteen Days" about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but heavens - these people are still in office! It feels less like history and more like some weird sort of voyeurism.
"Based on a true story" is W.'s subtitle, and viewers should bear that in mind - both ways. Most of the dialogue is pure fiction, true though it may sound. The analysis of Bush's character - and his presidency - belongs to Stone and Weiser, who are not Bush's psychiatrists.
On the other hand, fiction can provide an important sort of truth. Certainly we need to know what really makes our leaders tick. Our lives depend on it. We need to learn lessons from this film so we will never make such a mistake again.
Most relevant to our current decision are parallels between Bush and Republican nominee John McCain. Despite the easy privilege of the former and the war imprisonment of the latter, they are temperamentally much the same. Both are gut decision-makers; and, once a decision is made, it is never questioned despite new evidence. Both are hotheads. Both think in black and white. Both have father issues in spades.
McCain comes from as many generations of military as Bush comes from generations of Yalies. Bush's father and grandfather ascended great heights in public life. McCain's father was a Navy admiral who was away for much of his growing up. Both have had a lot of family history to live up to. That has often led them both to bad decisions. Neither man is big on self-knowledge, so they can't tell when personal history is shaping world history. When McCain says, "I'll fight!," I cringe because it feels unconnected to present circumstances; it feels like an urge the candidate does not himself understand. He is an angry, cranky, pugnacious old man but he also sounds like a petulant child.
I was already an Obama supporter when I saw "W.," but the film strengthened my resolve. In "W.," it's terrifying to see how one man's personal history can wreak havoc on the whole world. I trust Barack Obama's self-understanding, calm temperament and keen intellect. He is a head thinker, not a gut thinker. He would be our Franklin Roosevelt instead of McCain's Herbert Hoover - or worse. We really cannot afford more of the same character structure in a president.
"W." is a cautionary tale indeed. Thank you, Oliver Stone.