Having heard so much about Obama’s story over the last week, it’s a good time for the release of W., a film by Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon), written by Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) which tells of George W Bush’s trajectory from feckless booze-hungry college boy to president of the USA.
The film takes two points in Bush’s life and moves the narrative forward from there: so it opens in the Whitehouse in post 911 America as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al discuss plans to invade Iraq. And then we’re back to 1966, it’s pledge week at Yale and we see two important things – one is an example of Bush’s incredible memory which he uses to recall the nicknames of his Delta Kappa betters and earn their respect – a tactic he will later employ to master political speeches – and the other is that Bush is, at heart, just a simple jock.
Whilst back in 2002, Bush prepares to take the country to war, we also follow the young Bush as he tries and fails to win the respect of his father, George Bush Senior, discovers his own penchant for politics, finds religion and embarks upon what he believes to be his God-given destiny – to be elected president.
To watch the film when Bush was still in power would have been a very different experience. But with Barak firmly in the Whitehouse, it is possible to appreciate this almost sympathetic portrait of Bush the man, as well as Bush the president.
It is a fairly solid and simple film which ploughs these two timelines, one revealing a fate we know all too well, the other which sheds some light on the essence of Bush, a slightly obtuse, rather inward looking but ultimately harmless Texan. Of course, as events revealed, he is only harmless when not in a position of great power that he’s woefully unqualified for.
Once elected, and surrounded by men of greater brains and greater machinations, Bush is very dangerous. Indeed, figures such as Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (Toby Jones) are portrayed as almost villainous here, puppet masters pulling the strings of a simple, baseball loving man whose driving force is simply to make his “Poppy” love him.
Stone favours a straightforward, even dense style, rather reminiscent of Bush himself, though the film is interspersed with the odd, unexpected image – from an arty, surreal shot of a discarded corn cob to a made-for-TV-esque lingering look at of a bottle of Jack Daniels. The soundtrack is heavy with country songs which append to Bush a sort of down home ignorance, but it also contains some random elements, such as the repetition of the Robin Hood song, the sort of mocking tune more suited to a Michael Moore film than this otherwise balanced movie.
John Brolin (No Country for Old Men) is simply excellent as Bush – his adoption of Bush’s body language is so good that he is a doppelganger even from the back, and, as well as looking and sounding utterly convincing, he achieves the tricky feat of making a sympathetic character from one of the most despised figures of our generation.
The supporting cast are also notable – particularly Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and James Cromwell as Bush Snr, the latter icily good as the parent who seems determined to keep his son in that black sheep role, no matter how hard W tries to clamber out.
There are a few rueful laughs in this film, such as when George Bush Snr is lambasting his wayward son :“What are you cut out for,” he says. “Partying? Chasing tail? Drink driving? What do you think you are, a Kennedy?”, and another, unintentional moment when Tony Blair (Ioan Gruffudd) appears as a stuttering quintessential Brit. (I don’t know why they didn’t go all out and just get Hugh Grant.)
Rewarding as it is to find out more about Bush, this film is, alas, far from a classic. Though the two-line narrative structure is less jerky than other biopics (such as the confusing La Vie En Rose), the film still lacks tension. It somehow comes over as a bit too simple, making what could have appeared an epic story – inadequate man gets to seat of immense power and goes to war – seemed rather a textbook case of a small man trying to gain his father’s love. Maybe this is the biopic that Bush deserves but as a viewer, I would have preferred something grander.
W. is on general release