I went to see Oliver Stone's biopic about George W. Bush hoping to gain insight into the formation of the man, some glimpse of a human being as opposed to the caricature I carry in my mind based on his hideous use of language and arrogant cowboy approach to foreign relations.
All I came away with was the same caricature, plus admiration for the impersonation skills of the actors who play the key characters.
Because the aspect of Bush's public persona that bothers me most is his apparent lack of education, I was hoping to see something of his academic experience. I wanted to understand how it is possible for a man to graduate from Yale and Harvard, yet remain ignorant of common grammatical constructions and idioms.
I wanted to know how a man exposed to (one assumes) the finest teachers in the nation could retain such a childish view of the world, such total ignorance of the fact that not everyone on the planet sees things the same way.
I wanted to know how Bush went from an out-of-control alcoholic and drug addict to a born-again teetotaler. All Stone gives us is a scene in which, hung-over, Bush goes for a morning run and falls down. Next thing we know, he's got religion.
Bush's Family Connections
I wanted to know how a drunken nonentity could defeat the intelligent incumbent governor of Texas. I wanted to see what part the Bush family wealth and social connections played in placing Bush in positions of political power. Again, Stone gives us nothing.
If there is one defining scene in this film, it is not the one in which Governor Bush tells preacher Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach) that God wants him to be President. It is not any of the baseball dream sequences, or the speech that persuades Congress to okay the bombing of Iraq.
For me the defining scene is one that occurs early in the film. Pledge Bush is being initiated into a fraternity during a drinking orgy. To paraphrase one of his tormentors, what they all have in common is that they are the sons of wealthy families. The rule-breaking bullies revel in their sense of privilege and the knowledge that the accident of their birth will permit them to go through life impervious to rules of conduct that apply to those born to less affluent families.
Stone's film may garner some nominations for acting. It was eerie fun to see Richard Dreyfuss looking so much like Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright like Colin Powell, and Josh Brolin like Bush.
Toby Jones as Karl Rove is Mephistopheles fawning at Faust's elbow, not so much evil genius as curious observer without a moral sense of any kind.
Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice is unfailingly irritating. I wanted to slap her every time she opened her mouth.
James Cromwell again reveals the range of his acting skill in his portrayal of the senior Bush as a man whose sense of right and wrong interferes with his quest for political power.
As for story, there is nothing in Stanley Weiser's script it that any one of us couldn't have cobbled together from a news archive, including much of the dialogue.
Stock footage shows us real senators applauding Bush's fatal decision to bomb Iraq. Bush's most glaring grammatical errors and verbal convolutions are worked into his staff meetings.
W. is a very "talky" film. The lack of action is compensated for by enormous close-ups that are so frequent and oppressive as to make the viewer want to move farther back from the screen.
A Clue in the Credits
I'm one who stays glued to the seat until the last credit rolls. I like to see all the names, not just those of the principal actors. I like to see the ethnicity of the gaffers and make-up artists. I like to know if there were stunt doubles and where the movie was filmed. W. was filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana.
I'm always amazed at how many people it takes to make a movie and I suppose part of the reason I stay in the seat as the theater empties is to show my appreciation for all those behind-the-scenes folk whose names remain unknown to the general public.
This habit of waiting for the seal at the end of the credits earned me an extra scene at the end of the 2008 X-Files movie. And at the end of the W. credits I got what I think was a glimpse of what Oliver Stone must see as the most significant aspect of the George Bush phenomenon:
an animated Latin cross transforms into the W. of the movie title.
Is that what we are supposed to get from this biopic? Are we really supposed to believe that the destructive impact of the Bush years is the result of his Christian belief? Or is the transformation of the cross into the W meant to imply that in some minds Bush is the equivalent of Christ?
I haven't seen Stone's other political biopics so I can't judge how well he presents Nixon or John Kennedy. With Bush, however, what Stone gives us is a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch in which gifted actors maintain remarkably apt impersonations of people we know from the news, depictions that only reinforce our impression that as President, George W. Bush was a stupid man manipulated by incompetent and malevolent advisers.