For eight years, U.S. president George W. Bush accrued so much derision and criticism the world over, yet seemed completely oblivious to it. No matter the volume of the outcries against him, he would not be deterred from his agenda.
What shaped this irrepressible man who would not bow to such public pressure? This is a question Oliver Stone seemed to be working out for himself in W. (pronounced ‘dub-ya’), his biographical depiction of the 43rd POTUS, which is now ten years old.
The film was shot in six weeks in summer 2008 and premiered in America three months later. Bush was still in office and his successor was days away from being named. Election fever was just one reason why there was excitement for this film, another being the thought that Bush’s presidency would be brought to an end with the same treatment Stone gave Nixon.
Audiences were expecting Stone to be delivering the final sledgehammer blow to Bush with this film, and many were surprised, even dismayed, to find it far more lenient on the man than they had expected (or hoped). The reaction, then, was less than enthusiastic, but were audiences let down by high expectations? This is, after all, not a hatchet job, but a largely serious biography of George W. Bush.
Families Are Where Wings Take Dream
W. jumps back and forth in Bush’s life, from his rowdy college days and his early ventures in oil and baseball to the end of his first term in the oval office. He meets his eventual first lady, finds God and, after a number of failed attempts, enters the world of politics. At the end of the chronology, the film finds him and his administration plotting the invasion of Iraq on the back of his high, post-9/11 approval ratings. There is one approval, however, Bush seemingly cannot get: that of his family.
His father – UN ambassador, then vice and eventual president – looks down on him, feeling carefree and inconsiderate George Jr is disgracing the family name. W. can be laborious in its point that Bush’s ascension to the highest office in politics was just to live up to the family name. In its more intimate moments, though, the film does well to show the expectation and pressure to live up to a family name, and the tensions that arise when they aren’t met.
Bush here is played by Josh Brolin, and being from a famous family himself, brings some of his own insight of this tension to his transformative performance. He avoids doing a straight-up impression of Bush, but is able to completely inhabit the man. He makes George W.’s journey from hard-drinking tearaway to statesman completely believable, highlighting the pieces of himself he loses along the way. His rendition of Bush goes a long way to giving the film grounding in reality.
It’s strange then that the supporting cast don’t go to the same lengths. James Cromwell phones it in as George Bush senior, while Thandie Newton overdoes her attempt at Condoleeza Rice, and Jeffrey Wright is closer to Mr T than Colin Powell. There are good performances from Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Toby Jones as Karl Rove and Richard Dreyfus, who captures Dick Cheney perfectly and without feeling the need to gain weight for the part.
The Past Is Over
W. is now, removed from its novelty and topical context, a historical document, and may be better for it. With these events are no longer at the forefront of our minds, and with the benefit of greater hindsight, we can now look back on the events depicted and see how actually serious and devastating they were.
One such thing is the war in Iraq – Stone consciously chose to focus on this over some better-known moments of his presidency, such as the 2000 election recount. While it may not be one of the sexier moments of the Bush presidency, it had by far the biggest impact, and the effects of Bush’s decision to invade are still being felt years later.
The film also makes a point of how Bush’s adult conversion to Christianity may have corrupted his mind, and given him the idea that becoming president was the calling of a higher power. Scenes like this make the case for caution for the dangerous influence religious beliefs can have on politics, which has become a prescient issue in American politics today.
He’s Bigger Than That
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, though, are better at analysing than dramatising. With seemingly little genuine insight into the Bush White House, they try themselves to work out what was going on behind the scenes. They make some fairly obvious conclusions – such as Bush was driven more by those around him than making decisions himself. It’s here, though, that the film is its most savage towards its subject.
As president, Bush is depicted here as clueless, out of his depth and without any self-awareness to know so, while still arrogant in his misguidance to not generate any sympathy for him, at least when he’s talking about going to war. Those who complained W. was soft on Bush maybe weren’t looking hard enough.
The Bush-isms that are sprinkled throughout the film (some out of real context) serve the make the film’s ultimate point that Bush the legend has over-taken Bush the man. That his public persona has overshadowed the more serious actions of his mis-guided presidency. “All I am is a name,” Bush says in the film to his priest, and at the end of W. you realise that’s true, in more ways than one.
He was born into a dynasty he spent his whole life trying to live up to, and never had the chance to be his own man. Bush claims in the film that god told him to run for president – possibly, though, it was more to do with a feeling he was destined to become president, because there was no other path he could take.
The parts of W. may be better than the whole, but in its best parts it’s compelling, thought-provoking and a unique interpretation of the Bush presidency, while as a whole it is anchored by an outstanding central performance.