They should probably call it “Dub-ya” in this country. After all, W. doesn’t exactly spell George Bush to most of us.
Think of Bush, we think of hanging chads in Florida and reading to nursery kids as the Twin Towers came down. Neither of these images show up in Oliver Stone’s film.
Apparently he originally planned to make a movie about the Florida 2000 debacle, but backed away from it when he got wind of a rival movie project (Recount, with Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern). Instead, Stone decided to do two parallel stories… one traces the sharp curve from Dub-ya’s youthful hellfire days to born again Christian and his swift rise in politics, while the other focuses on the fateful decision to go to war with Iraq.
Initially the tone seems to be broad satire. The first thing we hear is the cabinet grasping for the right words for the President’s State of the Union address: “The Axis of Hatred?” suggests someone. No, that’s not quite right…
And the first flashback plunges us into the drunken initiation rites for the Skull & Bones Club at Yale, where the young George W. is following in the footsteps of his father George H. W., and his Nazi-leaning father before him. This is about the one and only time when W. excels: even falling down drunk he can name most of the senior members of the society. They are impressed. This one obviously has potential.
Played with good-ol’-boy charm and a kind of bewildered, barely suppressed panic by No Country For Old Men star Josh Brolin, this Bush is a people person who can’t hold down a job and struggles to articulate his thoughts largely because he doesn’t seem to have many.
When his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks) tells him she’s a librarian he grimaces - “Uh-oh”. Laura likes him anyway and it turns out Stone is more sympathetic than we might expect. If you can detect grudging respect for Tricky Dick in Nixon, there’s an undertow of pity in this film. A two-term President who seems almost to have inherited the job may be an unlikely underdog, but repeatedly we see George as the younger son painfully aware of his limitations, incapable of measuring up to his dad or earning the old man’s admiration.
Even after “Junior” quits drinking and finds God, the haughty and patrician George H. W. (James Cromwell) is uncomfortable with his beliefs and advises him to steer clear of politics. It’s meant as a kindness, but it’s another twist of the knife in Dub-ya’s heart.
The Oedipal payback is the invasion of Iraq: Dub-ya finishing the job his dad fell back from. When George H. W. loses to Clinton, Dubya lays the blame firmly on his failure to oust Saddam.
This is the central point for Stone, who clearly sees Iraq as another imperialist misadventure; another Vietnam.
While James Cromwell doesn’t affect George H. W.’s vague, nasal speech patterns, Stone’s cabinet could pass muster for the real thing in a dimly-lit wax museum: Scott Glenn as the asinine, gung-ho “Rummy”; Thandie Newton, transformed into an unreasonably eager-to-please “Condi”; Jeffrey Wright, looking dyspeptic as Colin Powell (“Colin”); Toby Jones as the calculating political advisor Karl “Boy Genius” Rove; and Richard Dreyfuss, outstanding as the real brains behind the throne, affectionately known as “Vice”.
These scenes have an appropriately jaundiced satiric edge, with Dub-ya clearly out of his depth, intellectually speaking (he’s like that boss we have all known, who coasts to the top on other people’s brains and hard work).
The movie’s best scene lays out all the arguments for going against Saddam, with Vice and Rummy leading the charge, and Colin fighting a valiant but ineffectual rearguard action. Dub-ya looks on, his mind already made up, convinced that this will be a glorious chapter in the history books.
(Ioan Gruffud is quite funny in his one scene as Tony Blair, obviously uncomfortable with Bush’s plan of action but not about to offend his host.)
Visually, you would hardly believe this is the same filmmaker who gave us adrenaline-charged, hyper-edited movies like JFK and Natural Born Killers. The rhetorical fire of those movies has been extinguished, and we’re left with a sober, dry style that’s nowhere near as exciting, but arguably more persuasive.
I’m afraid the trouble with W. may be that most of us would rather have seen Stone go in for the kill: character assassination would have been more fun that what sometimes seems like a muddled apologia. Maybe it’s just too soon – the wounds are too fresh, the fog of war hasn’t lifted. Given the numerous re-edits Stone performed on his last imperial warlord, Alexander, we may see different shadings emerge on the DVD – but the notion of making Bush into some sort of tragic anti-hero still seems like a hard sell. Most of us are still figuring out how on earth he got to be President in the first place.
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