Head cheerleader. Failed oilman. Air National Guard. Mano a mano. Traded Sammy Sosa. Turd Blossom. Is our children learning? Axis of Evil. Slam dunk. You break it, you own it. Shock and awe. Drain the swamp. Misunderestimated. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. Freedom fries. Mission Accomplished. The dark side. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice--you don’t get fooled again.
If these phrases ring a bell, it is likely either because you just watched Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. or because you have picked up a newspaper on occasion over the last eight years. Stone’s latest foray into political cinema is a shapeless grab-bag of familiar incidents and quotations (many of them placed in the wrong context or uttered by the wrong mouth) posing as a character study of the 43rd president of the United States. It’s a film that seems pitched at an almost unimaginably thin cross-section of viewers: those who follow politics closely enough to catch its constant self-conscious references, but not closely enough to recognize it as a shallow, ham-fisted portrait.
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) pile their well-worn anecdotes on top of one another with the diligence, if not the eye for structure, of Wall-E stacking trash cubes. Scene after scene is stuffed to the breaking point: In a single lunch with Bush (Josh Brolin), Dick Cheney previews his theory of the “dark side,” recommends the invasion of Iraq, hands over an executive order authorizing torture (“Only three pages, good,” the prez replies), and listens to his boss describe himself as the “decider.” Again and again, memorable lines that don’t fit neatly in the narrative are simply shoe-horned in at random. Since the movie doesn’t spend time on the 2000 primaries, for instance, Bush’s suggestion that John McCain was on his “high horse” taking the “low road” is instead repurposed as a comment about French President Jacques Chirac. A two-minute scene of Bush choking on a pretzel while watching football is thrown in apropos of nothing, just because, you know, everybody thought it was pretty funny at the time. Presumably there’s footage somewhere on Stone’s cutting-room floor of a youthful Dubya asking a party guest of his parents’ what sex after 50 is like.
The film bounces arhythmically back and forth between Bush’s early life--the misspent youth, the failed business ventures and congressional run, the meeting of and marriage to Texas librarian Laura Welch (Elizabeth Banks), the religious awakening--and his presidential (in only the literal sense) deliberations over the Iraq war. The former scenes are, of course, supposed to explain the latter--and they do, to a fault: This may be the most overdetermined psychological profile since Hitchcock wound up Norman Bates and let him go. After his unsuccessful congressional run, Bush promises, “There’s no way I’ll ever be out-Texan’d or out-Christian’d again.” (Get it?) He encourages his dad to become born again as a way of better connecting to the GOP base. And when Poppy loses reelection in 1992, Dubya’s certain it was because he didn’t take out Saddam.
All of this, though, is small beer compared to the movie’s Big Theme: Bush, you see, was always trying to prove himself to a father who liked and respected little brother Jeb more than him. As Rosebuds go, this one is hardly a revelation: Bush’s daddy issues have been on display as long as he has. Still, every third scene or so is a variation on this oedipal fugue: 41 berating 43 for his professional failures, asking for his help on the reelection campaign only because Jeb turned him down, too disappointed by Jeb losing his gubernatorial bid in Florida to be happy about Dubya winning his in Texas, and on and on. Stone wears out this central argument so early that on more than one occasion I thought the movie had reached its concluding scene. But no, back to the Freudian trough we’d go again, culminating with a dream sequence set in the Oval Office in which father lectures son, a final psychiatric CliffsNote for any dozers or late arrivals who might have missed the first eleven iterations.
As Bush, Brolin remarkably transcends this hackneyed material, at least most of the time, offering a subtle portrayal of an unsubtle man, someone who chooses certainty over complexity because the latter is just too much work. Banks, too, is exceptional as Laura, capturing her strange diffidence, the sense of being a somewhat bemused spectator of her own life.
The rest of the cast, though, mostly disappoints. A central problem is that Stone opts for recognizable actors whose resemblances to the (also recognizable) characters they are playing are frequently limited. When for instance, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) bicker, it is not Cheney and Powell whom we see, but Dreyfuss and Wright. (It is a pleasant fantasy, though, to imagine that Powell might ever have told Cheney, “Don’t patronize me, Mr. Five Deferments.”) Likewise, with Scott Glenn (who plays Donald Rumsfeld), James Cromwell (George H. W. Bush), and Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush). As Condoleezza Rice, Thandie Newton has rather the opposite problem: Though the physical resemblance is uncanny, her performance is a caricature worthy of “SNL,” a tight-lipped fembot whose shrill, nasal whine could make dogs yelp at 200 yards.
Perhaps the film’s greatest letdown, though, is the minimal screen time afforded Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer. This ought to have been the casting coup not merely of the film but of the decade. Yet “Daily Show” alum Corddry gets barely a scene, leaving us to imagine what W. might have been like had he spent more time center stage. Among other blessings, broader use of Corddry would have resolved the question that dogged early reports of Stone’s film and lingers even after one has seen it: Is W. a comedy? The truth is that I don’t know, and Oliver Stone doesn’t know, and the movie itself doesn’t know. For all his contextual and temporal fiddling around, Stone mostly tries to play the movie straight. But sometimes he just can’t help himself, as when he has Bush refer to Guantanamo as “Guantanamera” or describe himself getting “stabbed in the back all at once like ... that guy in Rome” or say of John Quincy Adams’s presidency, “Yeah, but that was like 300 years ago, wasn’t it?”
It may be that, for the moment at least, any non-documentary film about George W. Bush is doomed to such confusions of purpose. For all its theoretical timeliness, Stone’s vision is a sorely dated one, the first-term Bush of “Bushisms,” the president as clown in chief. But post-Iraq, post-Katrina, post-meltdown, Bush is no longer a figure of fun. At the same time, it’s difficult to envision how a movie could dramatize his disastrous, off-the-cuff presidency in purely sober fashion either. When reality so often outstrips satire, what is left except the consolations of a bleak joke?Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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