Hating George W. Bush is so cool. In fact, it’s so cool, that the only thing cooler is to unashamedly support him. I mean, he’s no Reagan but he’s still pretty cool. Or maybe he isn’t, I don’t know.
Happily, Oliver Stone doesn’t seem to know either, or if he does, refrains from rubbing his opinion in his audience’s face. While one would expect the director, who has built a career on finger-pointing and conspiracy-theories, to depict America’s forty-third president in a typically sensationalist fashion, Stone applies a delicacy and lightness of touch to ‘W’ that is curiously missing from much of his output.
A non-linear biopic, the work attempts to trace and ultimately comprehend Bush’s trajectory from careless, beer-guzzling Harvard Frat-boy to most powerful man in the world, rather than simply launch a tired attack on an unpopular, little understood man. However much he is criticised, it will take time before fair assessment can be afforded to Dubya’s legacy.
Stone is keenly aware of this, and chooses to focus instead on the improbable, ‘simple country boy does good’ narrative arc of his subject’s life, a story that, as the director himself recognises, could be drawn from the world of Frank Capra. ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Iraq,’ if you will
Josh Brolin ably handles the role of an unable president and, crucially, succeeds in humanising him before the audience. Playing the part as a handsome, charismatic good ol’ boy, the ‘No Country for Old Men’ star’s warts and all portrayal paints Bush as the ultimate ‘every man.’
Whether seen spraying a mouth full of chewed hamburger mush onto his future wife or choking on a pretzel, the character rarely comes across as anything other than honest and thoroughly unpretentious.
Basing the majority of the film on factual accounts and audio transcriptions, Stone never goes for cheap laughs, presenting his subject as realistically and true to life as possible. If these meticulous concessions to reality happen to elicit laughs, then this is proof of nothing other than the inherent absurdity of Bush’s storied life and career. Crucially, he never cared much for politics and was never the most eloquent or learned man. He was a rich kid with a drink problem and a chip on his shoulder.
At the beginning of ‘W,’ our hero is seen vowing to fellow students that he has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps, seemingly favouring a prospective career in baseball over politics. Eventually, the film can be scene to suggest that George junior is, in part, driven to involvement in affairs of state as a means of impressing his father, in whose shadow he always seemed likely to live, and to whom he has been a perennial disappointment.
If Stone falters in ‘W,’ it is in putting too much emphasis on their father-and-son relationship and this relatively unsatisfying notion.
Though the film succeeds in portraying Bush as a human, it fails in providing accurate representations of surrounding characters who, in a bid to accentuate the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, appear as either demonic or angelic, to the hilt. It’s debatable, for example, whether or not Bush senior really was bastion of old-school ethics that we see on screen, or whether everything in the world would be alright provided George junior chose to heed Colin Powell’s sage advice.
For all its timeliness, ‘W’ could never be regarded as a responsible document of its era. Providing audiences with an eerie sense of escapism, unusual for a biopic, it serves purely as a fascinating document of one man’s extraordinary life, all the while urging audiences to draw their own conclusions.
There is undoubtedly some good in Bush’s character, whether liberal viewers are comfortable accepting this or not. He may have waged a highly unpopular, illegal war and helped disrupt his country’s economy, but at least he didn’t leave rude messages on Andrew Sachs’ answer phone.