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Film Review: W.

W. (2008; Directed by Oliver Stone)

It is said that nations get the leaders they deserve. If that is true, then one might also argue that those leaders get the biopics they deserve. Oliver Stone’s blustery and unreflective W. might not be a fine film in all the ways it could be, but it’s an apt skim-reading of a blustery and unreflective President.

Make sure my hair looks like freedom.

Buoyed by Josh Brolin’s canny impersonation, Stone’s uneven film strolls through Dubya’s youth in a cursory way, making him out to be a cocky good-ole boy with a relentlessly sheltered sense of self-dissatisfaction. The deepest the film bothers to penetrate into the psychological forces that drive 43 is in his relationship with 41. Played by James Cromwell with his best insecure stateliness, Bush Sr. has a nuanced relationship with Jr. that is more interesting than even Dubya’s relationship to his wife (played by Elizabeth Banks). He’s disappointed by his son at every turn, even when he’s reaching out in a furtive, fatherly way.

Brolin’s Dubya has an odd doubled reaction to this. At the same time as he is desperately currying his father’s favour and looking to upstage the golden son, Jeb (who appears once to keep Sr. and Jr. from a punch-up, and then is absent but ever-present) by beating him to a governship and then to the Presidency, he rejects his father as weak and unmanly, and seeks to outdo him in the one way he can: by conquering Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, which 41 elected not to do. This pop-Oedipal reading of Dubya’s Iraq misadventure is given as much credence as Dick Cheney’s oil-fueled empire lust, and it seems the obvious end-point for a man whose aggressively masculine posturing is diagnosed as an attempt to both please and overthrow his father.

Though this pat bit of interpretive sleight-of-hand dominates the film and tends to drag it down a little, it’s given some breezy charm by the cast of character actors that bring the various administration figures around Dubya to life. Richard Dreyfus is eerie as Cheney, playing him as an old coiled python sneering out his cynical visions and acting less as a surrogate father-figure to Dubya than as a leering, sinister uncle. Banks is pretty as Laura Bush, but only vaguely hints at what an intelligent Democratic librarian saw in a spoiled Republican boor that was so attractive. Karl Rove is 90% conniving creep, but Toby Jones gives him a very intermittent sad look in his eyes, as if Rove knows that he’s horrid but doesn’t know how else to be. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell provides the film with a fleeting conscience, objecting to the neocon madness as much as he can but never quite succeeding in steering it towards sanity. Bruce McGill is a cigar-chomping George Tenet, Ellen Burstyn is a steely battle-axe as Barbara Bush, and Thandie Newton is hilariously, goofily affected as Condi Rice, pecking about the film like a wounded bird and squeaking in a wackily unnatural tone when she’s allowed to say anything at all. Most of the film’s best scenes come when all of these goofy people are thrown together and have to attempt to make serious public policy. They slam into each other like comets, and Dubya waits to sweep up the debris and turn it into Manichean talking-points.

All right, after this photo, we snort cocaine off Condi's chest!

Ultimately, what’s only occasionally interesting about Stone’s film and Brolin’s performance is how they give the famously unreflective Dubya occasional moments of self-reflective doubt. He gets frustrated at his mealy-mouthed press appearances, and sees the greatest tragedy of the Iraq debacle as his inability to get in his “miles” every day. These moments don’t so much build up sympathy for Bush as much as they incite pity; we feel a bit sorry for this uncertain, mostly untalented man who seeks refuge from his inabilities in puffed-up poses and atavistic martial photo ops, but we really feel more sorry for the portion of his country that bought into the image.

For all the attempts at self-awareness that Stone gives us, I was struck most by the potential one he glossed over: Dubya being baffled by Saddam’s insistence on pretending that he had WMDs in order to avoid looking weak in front of his people, even if that pretense lead to his downfall and, eventually, execution. Brolin’s Bush blusters on about this, without once checking himself to wonder at how Saddam’s ill-advised posturing mirrors his own. It’s a revealing moment, as is Dubya’s credulous naivety as Cheney slides his “dark side” argument for executive-authorized prisoner torture past him over a sunny lunch. In W., we get a portrait of a President who was sadly unequipped for the challenges he faced, but who blew on past them with feigned confidence anyway. That Stone and his collaborators try to make that situation seem more Shakespearean than it was is the narrative’s weakness, but it makes for a surprisingly brisk film nonetheless.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. September 28, 2012 at 6:36 am
  2. April 8, 2013 at 9:02 am

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