Tuesday, 14 October 2014
I was pretty disappointed with W. on its initial release some six years ago. The third in what could be classed as Oliver Stone's president trilogy, having been preceded by JFK and Nixon, I found it somewhat premature, coming in too early in the fall of Bush's presidency to have any real comment on the legacy of his premiership. Where its predecessors excelled was in exorcising the ghosts of a nation, of the world even, whereas W. served as little more than a hasty obituary on a dying patient.
Rewatching it today, I found that some distance has helped it but not enough to have it stand alongside JFK or Nixon. I still feel that if Stone had waited some years - maybe a couple more years time from even today - to commence this project it might have had more impact.
Of course part of the problem is the age we now live in. Much of what is depicted in W. was already public knowledge thanks to numerous press accounts and tell all books regarding Bush's life before politics, his relations with his family, his time in office, 9/11 and the Gulf Wars. Facts and theories that do not require reinterpretation in the manner that Stone's other presidential, or indeed generally political (as Platoon and Salvador with its views on US foreign policy and modern warfare equally fall into this example) did. As such the 'shock and awe' (to quote a post 9/11 Bush favoured phrase) one normally associates with Stone's films isn't really in evidence with W. and that too explains our disappointment.
Stone had to take a different route with his character study and exploration of recent history and it came as some surprise perhaps that he seemed keen to show the humanity and likeability in a man who, for many citizens of the world, was a figure of fun at best and a figure of utter hate at worst. By using an episodic non linear narrative that flashes back and forwards from 'the present day' of Bush's time at the White House to his days at college and his inability to hold down a succession of jobs, Stone depicts a figure that the audience can have empathy with. We see how he never truly made his parents (James Cromwell as George Bush Snr and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara) proud and, thanks to his love of partying, reckless behaviour and ultimately his alcoholism, gave them cause to despair. Their favouring of their other son Jeb resulting in sibling rivalry between the brothers, is shown to explain Bush's character and its a universal theme for any family to comprehend and provoke sympathy. That Stone manages to do that with a President we believed to have an either/or opinion about, one who fraudulently went to war and helped bring about economic collapse, is pretty impressive. His narrative choice is clearly one of a man who blindly reached his esteemed position through luck, opportunity and accident. His Bush is just a good ole boy (and how those 60s and 70s scenes remind one of a Burt Reynolds movie or an episode of Dallas) who got in way over his head. Because this isn't a savage indictment, it's implicitly implied rather than outright stated that Bush is an incompetent president, conferring to the forthright opinions of some of his staff, specifically Dick Chaney (Richard Dreyfuss, stealing the film with a jaw droppingly convincing turn) Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and Donny Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), whilst exasperating others such as Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton performing like a Spitting Image puppet of Condy) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright - the embodiment of biting your lip) It's an interesting approach, suggesting that we really ought to have been looking at those closest to Bush, than Bush himself. As such, Stone never lets us get close to the Machiavellian powers behind the throne, nor to those who ultimately deferred to Bush's will which ultimately allowed him to sustain his families legacy, in all likelihood against their own predictions.
Besides my criticism that it came too soon, the film has other flaws. You're never quite sure what it is Stone wants to really say about Bush, other than he is just a man. But he's a man who believed it was God's will that he should become president. In a world where normal people who believe they have heard voices get sectioned, why is it just accepted that a president - the man with nuclear codes - heard a voice telling him to obtain office? There's also the issue of Brolin having to play Bush at each stage of the man's life. It's faintly ludicrous to see the 40 year old Brolin play a frat boy alongside actors of the right age, but its the necessity of the narrative that Stone selected.
It's an accomplished and polished looking film with a strong cast but I can't really shake the notion that it could have truly achieved greatness if approached further down the line. In the film's closing moments, Bush is stumped by the press who ask him what his role in history will be...maybe it is only history that will allow us that answer.