Oliver Stone’s highly anticipated film biography of George W. Bush, W., has opened with mediocre success at the box office. Given the largely disappointing and disjointed quality of the film, it seems unlikely to turn things around and become a big hit, or to have any effect on the upcoming elections.
As had been rumored before the film’s release, W. seems occasionally sympathetic to its central character, but the portrait it creates is largely negative. That is the filmmaker’s prerogative, of course, but what is inexcusable—and dooms the film as either entertainment or art—is the portrait’s essential incoherence.
While Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Bush depicts him as physically quite ugly, with a constant barrage of unappealing smirks, grimaces, and body ticks quite unlike the real man’s definite congeniality, the film’s presentation of Bush’s personality varies wildly.
Adding to the confusion is the director’s and writer’s choice to construct W. non-chronologically, jumping back and forth in time without any clear point behind the choice of which scene follows which. Evidently this is meant to encourage audiences to see the material thematically, but the themes are not drawn with any clarity, other than that Bush is alternately driven by outside events and creates additional problems by himself.
Thus the film depicts Bush variously as an irresponsible, selfish scoundrel; a religious nut; an exceedingly clever, ambitious, and unscrupulous politician; and a disturbed, adolescent adult intent on proving his worth to his father. Stone’s Bush is naive, imperious, impulsive, and calculating at various times. Apparently this complex of contradictions is intended to create a deeply nuanced, psychologically complex, understanding portrait of a complicated man. Instead, the central character the film presents is simply incoherent and implausible.
Ultimately, the episodic, unfocused presentation of events makes much of the film rather dull, despite the largely strong performances Stone evokes from his actors.
Egregiously damaging to the film’s effect are the behind-the-scenes cabinet meetings, which come off as ridiculously false and didactic. Especially damaging in this regard is the filmmakers’ attempt to make Secretary of State Colin Powell into a lone voice of reason and conscience in the Bush White House. Instead, he comes off as every bit as smug and priggish as the rest of the group, which was clearly not the filmmakers’ intention. Their problem appears to have been that their idea of a good person is a smug prig.
In addition, the film’s version of Powell ultimately caves in and argues for the war in a famous speech to the United Nations, albeit reluctantly, after enduring continuous pressure from the rest of the inner circle. That makes him look cowardly for going against his conscience instead of resigning, as he should certainly have done had he disagreed so strongly. This does not resemble the Powell we know, nor does it make sense for the character as presented in the film.
On the plus side, the scene in which Bush becomes a Christian is handled very well and without irony. Stone’s ability to render this scene so effectively shows what he could have accomplished had his aim been purer throughout the film.
The filmmakers obviously want to identify Bush’s motives as president and beforehand, but W. never makes his thinking process clear. Stone cannot decide whether Bush has been basically a well-intentioned but irresponsible fool in a job well over his head (a strong theme of the film) or a crafty tyrant bent on an agenda of self-aggrandizement and personal vendettas (an equally strong theme). It would take a Shakespeare to make such a portrait cohere, and Stone is no Shakespeare.
Most of all, however, Stone’s obsession with Iraq War weakens the effect of the film as an assessment of Bush’s presidency or any kind of sensible view of the man. Certainly the Iraq War was a defining element of Bush’s presidency, but it can be argued that his other mistakes were what really destroyed his popularity, sending him down from 80+ percent approval by the American public to near single-digits and a current approval rating of less than one-third of the public. After all, no one holds the Congress responsible for the Iraq War, yet their approval rating is only half of what Bush’s is.
Thus it would have made sense for W. to spend at least some time on Bush’s policies regarding federal government spending, the financial crisis, the Patriot Act, the disastrous botching of the Katrina response, the inability to reform health care policy and Social Security, the increasing nationalization of K-12 education, his failure to agree with the vast majority of America on immigration policy, and the like.
Indeed, I think that the rapid and unjustified increases in government spending in recent years are the main reason that the public disapproves so strongly of both Bush and the Congress. Crucially, I believe that the lack of any discernible benefits from the vast spending increases are what infuriated people the most.
Although I agree that the incursion into Iraq was not the right thing to do, at least there was some rationale behind it which made sense at the time. Even very liberal Democrats supported it. For the outrageous spending increases of the past six years (of which Iraq War spending was a relatively small part), however, there is no excuse whatever.
That, I believe, is the real reason Americans are so disappointed in the presidency of George W. Bush, and Stone’s failure to understand that makes this blinkered portrayal of the man and his works much less interesting than it could have been.