BY CHRIS SZABLA
Even as the financial crisis appeared to deliver the final blow to the popularity of George W. Bush and his potential Republican successors, Oliver Stone delivered his own verdict. The politically inclined director’s biopic, W., doesn’t focus on every failure of the Bush years – Katrina, for one, plays no part in the film – but zeroes in on the president’s reenactment of the Persian Gulf War. For as much as President-elect Barack Obama’s life has been characterized by the search for identity he embarked upon in Dreams From My Father, Stone implies that much of W.’s life – and presidency – were colored by nightmares from his own.
Yet for all the Freudian drama of this struggle against the first President Bush, played by James Cromwell as a sensibly patrician paterfamilias, Stone’s retreats into the depths of W.’s subconscious are surprisingly rare. There is some recourse to visual metaphor – Josh Brolin’s Bush seen in the outfield, poised to bag a baseball hit in his direction – but the conceit is clumsy. The nature of the message that this foray into Bush’s inner life could possibly convey is improbably blunt: he can either win or lose, be alert or confused.
Still, Stone’s image – Bush rarely catches the ball – does manage to comment, subtly, on his black and white, “with us or against us” mentality – and on the ineptitude that haunts Bush the younger throughout his adult life. As a frat boy at Yale, he has a remarkable facility with nicknames – undoubtedly one of the few features to carry through from his college education. Life careens downhill after that, as the young Bush flunks job after job. “What are you, a Bush or a Kennedy?” his father frets, as he recounts his son’s spotty (and hardly sober) record. Another nadir comes with his loss to a Democrat in a local race for Congress, during which he is pegged as an Ivy League carpetbagger. “I’ll never be out-Christianed or out-Texaned again!” he exclaims while alone on his patio shortly thereafter. Was this Stone’s attempt to parody St. Augustine’s famous conversion in the garden? It doesn’t take W. very long thereafter to commit to evangelicalism, and to try to push it on his reluctant father.
On the way, we witness their relationship’s ups and downs. The younger Bush applies to Harvard Business School, but the acceptance he is really looking for is paternal. Bush the elder, who pulls strings to get him in, is not impressed. Later, W. is thrilled when his father asks him for assistance on the presidential campaign trail, but is let down when he realizes he has nothing to look forward to. A comically proportioned Karl Rove chides him, stating the obvious – that W. has done nothing with his life.
Brolin’s Bush begins to lose respect for his father’s judgment after his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton. On election night, he claims that victory would have been natural had his father charged all the way to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. Later, he announces his intention to run for Governor of Texas – without his family’s blessing. Aghast, they make it clear that his brother Jeb is the more natural heir to the family’s political fortunes. When W. enters his first elected office, their contempt is curtailed.
The disdain of father Bush appears to have vanished as newly-minted President W. decides to march back to Baghdad. Paternal rage returns, however, as the adventure goes awry. In the film’s final scene, the viewer finally peers into a darker crevasse of W.’s suggested subconscious, and ogles his endless Oedipal anxiety. W. sits lashed to a chair in the Oval Office as his father, still holding some sort of authority, holds court. He would never forgive him, Cromwell’s father Bush asserts, for the “fiasco”. The Bush legacy has been squandered, their “two hundreds some years of hard work,” he rages, were for Jeb.
For all its focus on the subject, Stone’s film is not a solely Sophoclean tragedy. The conspiracy-cleaving director could not let this subject go without satirizing Bush’s cabinet, and Robert Duvall’s conquer-lusting Dick Cheney is clearly the most buffoonish of the lot. Colin Powell is lionized as a voice of reason whose conflict of ideals – between his sense of reason and his loyalty to the administration – leads him to his own tragic fate.
Neither the full contours of W.’s relationship to his father nor the three-dimensionality of his advisors’ attitudes are fully explored, but the film still appears to add up to what Stone would like it to be: an indictment against a president who, determined to earn paternal respect and surrounded by advisors who contemptuously refuse to provide him any of their own, trips almost unwittingly toward his demise. Many reviewers have felt that W. was kind on Bush. If it was, it is because of this apparent assertion: that despite his self-characterization as a go-it-alone “decider,” W. was never really his own man.