Bush, Stone-d

Oliver Stone takes on the burden of the Bush legacy with the unprecedented biopic W.

Stone portrays a young George Bush running for the House of Representatives in Texas.
Stone portrays a young George Bush running for the House of Representatives in Texas.
Credit: 
Supplied
Josh Brolin plays the President from his early days at Yale to his late nights in the White House.
Josh Brolin plays the President from his early days at Yale to his late nights in the White House.
Credit: 
Supplied

“I might as well be stabbed in the back all at once ... like that guy from Rome.” Good one, George. Although it may not be your most eloquent utterance (that was never your strength, anyway) you’re feeling an overwhelming sense of betrayal from your country, you’ve constantly been burdened by the weight of “poppy’s” expectations, your closest advisors have hung you out to dry and you only want to make the world a better place—I get it. But, perhaps most of all, you wish people would just move on, forget the Bushisms, the frequent displays of ineptitude, the low approval ratings and just move on, by golly, move on. Well, Mr. Bush—‘W,’ if I may—I, for once, agree with you.

Oliver Stone, on the other hand, won’t let those bygones be bygones. Besides succinctly capturing your understandable internal turmoil in a line that is likely an accurate reflection of your comprehensive Classics knowledge, Stone has thrown your unwelcome face on screen again with his crass biopic, W—a case study in overkill.

The scatterbrained film opens with a board meeting amongst Bush Administration legends.

“Axis of, axis of,” says President Bush as he muses behind his Oval Office desk, at the cusp of coining the ignominious phrase. Paul Wolfowitz—“Wolfy,” as Bush calls him—is playing with his hair, Colin Powell is pissed off, Karl Rove babbles like a child at play, Condoleezza Rice is so stiff she looks like the victim of rogue taxidermy, Donald Rumsfeld—“Rummy”—is drawing cartoons of “Condie” and Dick Cheney broods in the corner like an evil genius.

What’s wrong with this picture? It’s entertaining, yes, comparable to an Oval Office SNL skit, but it’s skin-deep, presenting everything in caricature and not adding anything new or nuanced to the roles and personas of the power-hungry.

The film then frantically jumps between scenes of Bush at Yale—bloodied, brawling and at his most immature—and his behind-the-scenes moments in office. We see his life, marriage, failed careers and eventual presidency, but they’re all framed with a dull emphasis on family dynamics: Father versus son, brother versus brother, Laura versus the in-laws.

Having one of the most notorious American political dynasties as your subject is not an excuse for a lack of engaging, intelligent and—most of all—fluid story-telling. The result is a movie painted in such broad strokes that it rivals Bush’s speeches in profundity and is trumped by newspaper journalism in entertainment value.

Assuming the role of admittedly boring yet highly publicized individuals must be a difficult task. Perhaps the only actor who comes close to achieving this is Josh Brolin as Bush but, then again, the performance treads the same waters as an SNL skit. Thandie Newton as Condolezza Rice—who sounded like she had a cork lodged in her left nostril—dives into these waters with farcical aplomb. Stone seems more concerned with physical imitation than commendable acting, causing the performances of such renowned actors as Toby Jones (Karl Rove) and Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell) to be mediocre at best. Dialogue, too, suffers from shallow political insertions—“Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?” spews Bush Sr. at his delinquent son—whose purpose is ostensibly to please the politically-tuned but whose effect is a weak laugh from even the most obsessive pundit.

Brolin, however, is quite entertaining when demonstrating the method behind Bush’s foot-in-mouth madness. He’s not simply an idiot, Stone and Brolin seem to imply, but a confident, brash, go-get-’em political tool, used by the system because of his appeal to “Joe the worker”—an eerily familiar phrase. Oliver Stone predicting this focus of the current Republican presidential campain in his film is its sole stroke of genius.

The relationship between Bush and Cheney—Pinky and The Brain incarnate—is tantamount to the most rudimentary of cinematic relationships. There is no doubt in my mind that Oliver Stone sat through a marathon of the original Star Wars trilogy before giving directions to his actors, telling them to channel the Force while arguing about the future of the world in a juvenile board meeting. I half expected Cheney to throw on his Emperor’s cloak, don a raspy voice and whisper menacingly in Bush’s ear, “George, you will pass the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists.”

The film is at its best when it sympathizes with the President, when it demonstrates his little-discussed or acknowledged humanity. It’s when he is shown confessing his self-consciousness to his wife, agreeing to go see Cats (his favourite musical), fumbling at a press conference like a helpless child at a spelling bee or watching the game with his dog that one almost—emphasis on the almost—feels sorry for the guy. I mean, shucks, it’s tough earnin’ your spurs, and he did his darndest.

But then the reality sets in. There is only so much one can take, especially in such bad form, of the President of Iraq, Katrina, Guantanamo Bay, the Wall Street collapse and Abu Ghraib. 

With W, Stone looks like a political guru who was given way too much money to make a film that inevitably feels like a pre-emptive strike to the hearts of the fans of politically conscious cinema. The only people pleased by this product will be those who mindlessly giggle over Bush’s mindlessness—and here I invoke those with Bushisms plastered on their wall—but, then again, they are likely to be disappointed as that is not the intent of the film. Stone seeks to explain the story of a man and an administration, not ridicule it. This, of course, is a seemingly good intention, but it’s simply the wrong time, the wrong script and the wrong man.

The subject is boring, exhausted and hyperbolized, and Stone does its inane qualities justice. But this is not the formula for a good dramatic interpretation. Rather, it’s the subject of a biographer, a news story or a documentary. Stone sinks to the level of his President with this film, caught in the headlights with his pants down while balancing too much power, too big an ego and too little control.

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