When Michael Moore made Farenheit 9/11 in late 2004, George W. Bush was the most divisive person in the world. Now, that probably isn’t the case. With approval ratings in the twenties it’s probably safe to guess that a majority of people can finally agree that “dubya” is a horrible president that should never have been elected. In case you haven’t guessed already, I’m no fan of our current president, and I never have been. I’m making my bias clear right up front, unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last eight years there’s no way to look at something like this without bias. Oliver Stone is not a filmmaker known to keep his head in the sand; he’s completely upfront with his biases, and that’s what makes his movies so interesting. The George W. Bush presidency is the perfect subject for Oliver Stone to do his magic, and low and behold here’s an Oliver Stone directed biopic about our forty third president.
Many people lump Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon as peas in the same pod, but they’re really very different films. JFK is not a biopic; the title character doesn’t even have a speaking role. Nixon is a full fledged biopic, though despite being over three hours long it focused almost exclusively on tricky Dick’s political career. With W. Oliver Stone examines a president’s entire adult life and in half as long a running time. The film generally focuses on three separate periods of Bush’s life: his life as a hellraising college student, his time as a businessman and Texas politician, and his presidency.
Playing the titular character is Josh Brolin, who’s coming off a great 2007 in which he acted in Grindhouse, American Gangster, and No Country for Old Men. I liked the choice of Brolin for the role from the moment I heard about it and he doesn’t disappoint. Doing a George W. Bush impression isn’t that hard, just about every two bit impressionist in the country does him. The trick here was probably just not getting too carried away with the impression, to not focus on the impression to the detriment of the acting in a given scene. If Brolin had focused too much on the impression the movie could have devolved into a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
The other various cast members also need to be able to make a balance between impression and acting, and some do it better than others. James Cromwell doesn’t really look much like George H.W. Bush, but there’s a certain New England aura too him that makes him the right contrast to the younger Bush’s Texas swagger. Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush takes a similar approach and so does Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld. Thandie Newton on the other hand tries so hard to imitate Condoleezza Rice that her line readings are devoid of any real humanity. Toby Jones has similar problems playing Karl Rove, and Jeffrey Wright is never quite able to pull of Colin Powell. Richard Dreyfuss is probably the only actor other than Brolin who is really able to pull off imitation and acting in equal measure. Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney looks and sounds exactly like the real Vice President and he never feels robotic in his imitating.
I’ve always been a fan of Oliver Stone’s movies, the man used to have an uncanny ability to put out a lot of very long and very ambitious movies in very quick succession while still maintaining a very high level of quality. Then he made U-Turn and it’s like the man’s career fell off a cliff. Any Given Sunday had its moments and World Trade Center was competent enough, but with clunkers like Alexander and the aforementioned U-Turn it’s hard to deny that Stone’s output has been dramatically worse than it once was. W. Looked like a perfect project to make a comeback out of, unfortunately I think this falls prey to a problem I never expected a fearless director like Oliver Stone to have: it plays too safe.
The film feels very plausible, a bit too plausible. Almost everything in the movie is a well documented historical event that Bush himself would probably agree to, albeit with a deliberate focus on the things that make Bush look bad. It’s almost like Stone was so afraid of being dismissed as a left wing kook that he decided to stick so close to the facts that there isn’t much left for the movie to show that wasn’t already covered in Fahrenheit 9/11. I’m not saying I wanted Stone to lie, what I wanted was for him to tell me something I didn’t already know, even if it meant using a little speculative fiction. Some of the best moments in the movie are during pre-Iraq strategy sessions where Dick Cheney lays out a scary theory of American imperialism. I’m sure this stretched a lot further than what can strictly be proven, it was probably speculated, and that’s what I wanted to see more of. I would have liked to see Stone go behind the closed doors of the White House and seen the planning that went into some of Bush’s botched policies like he did with Richard Nixon.
I also think the film suffers because it doesn’t really show a lot of the consequences of Bush’s actions. Of course one could easily argue that we’re seeing those consequences in our daily lives, but why fictionalize this at all if we already know all the real details. There’s some brief Iraq war footage, and the film goes a little bit into the period where Bush sees that the war isn’t as easy as he expected, but the film stops long before he finds himself become the least popular president since Hoover. The film also focuses in entirely on Iraq during the presidential portions, which is also a problem. Hurricane Katrina isn’t mentioned once even though that was where the public really turned on him. The Patriot Act is mentioned briefly and there’s a set up for No Child Left Behind that’s never delivered on. While Iraq is probably going to be the main red flag in the Bush legacy, it’s by no means the only mistake he made. This was never a problem with the three and a half hour Nixon, hopefully we’ll see a director’s cut that can fit more of this stuff in, until then we’re stuck with a film that focuses mainly on George Bush Jr. that underachieving president’s son who might have a better job some day in the future.
The film’s clever trailer is a montage to the tune of the song “Once in a Lifetime” By the Talking heads. Over the course of the montage the song’s lyrics seem to match up with what we’re seeing on screen. Among the most telling of these lyrical juxtapositions is the line “And you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here?” That’s the question I think Stone is most interested in answering, and it’s a valid question to be ask going into an election. If nothing else, I think this might work as a cautionary tale about the importance of vetting the people you vote for. George W. Bush had no business being president and he was voted in by people who went with him without really thinking about the implications of his policies. This is a movie about the dangers of casually voting for an underachieving dude just because he talks tough. Otherwise it’s a fairly standard biopic that reenacts a lot of stuff we already have video footage of.
I’m making it sound like I disliked this movie a lot more than I actually did. The movie is not boring, it held my interest for its entire running time and it worked fairly well as a narrative. I think I’m mostly just disappointed because of how great I think this maybe could have been. This is a well made film with some good performances at its center; it does enough right to be worth watching. What it isn’t is the Oliver Stone comeback film that I’ve been waiting for. For the most part this feels like yet another missed opportunity in an early autumn movie season full of them.
*** out of Four