Dubya - bumbling fool or cunning politician?

Reviewed by Dani Barley

Runtime: 129 minutes
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell and Richard Dreyfuss
In theatres now

When word spread in 2008 that Oliver Stone was making a biopic of US President George W. Bush and intended to release it in the US before election day, the right-wing blogosphere erupted in pre-emptive condemnation. Left-wing circles looked forward to a two-hour satire that would be cathartic and remind us just how thankful we should be that the days of his presidency were drawing to an overdue close. Upon release of the film, both sides were surprised to find their expectations were way off the mark and some have asked, “Mr. Stone, what exactly was your point?”

Explaining that his aim was to make an “even-handed” feature on the 43rd US president, Stone focused heavily on Bush’s pre-White House days — from drunken frat boy, to drunken drop-kick, to sober born again. Throughout the film, you’re bombarded with a few too many scenes chronicling what Stone sees as an overly Oedipal relationship between George H. W. Bush, the elder statesman, and his least favoured son. The jury is still out as to whether or not this is the case, but even if it were it’s still overdone in this work. James Cromwell as Bush senior feels miscast — he does a great disappointed father, but fails to even attempt the mannerisms and speech of his real-life counterpart. (A pretty stark contrast compared to the rest of the evocative primary cast who do a pretty stunning job embodying their real life counterparts, even if some of the portrayals err on the side of heavy satire.)

The only scenes of White House-era Dubya are post 9/11, before the end of his first term — from coining the term “Axis of Evil”, to the attempts to make the case to invade Iraq and the subsequent clusterfuck that ensues. These scenes were definitely the most interesting of the entire film, if only to enjoy the excellent portrayals of the Bush cabinet in all their scheming, neocon glory. Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney is such a perfect embodiment of the man, it’s surprising he wasn’t nominated for any awards for the part.

Writer Alan Maass observed in the October 30 edition of the US Socialist Worker that “One of Stone’s talents is his skill in bringing the tools of moviemaking to bear on a historical event or political debate. Thus, in W., there’s a meeting in the White House Situation Room where Cheney, flanked by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, makes the case for pre-emptive war to reshape the Middle East to the liking of U.S. imperial interests — chief among them, of course, control of Middle East oil. The scene is an indictment of every neoconservative who ever claimed to be motivated by democracy or freedom or even the security of Americans. Cheney concludes that the prize is nothing less than ‘Empire, real empire. Nobody will ever fuck with us again in our lifetime’.”

Ending on a note of whimsy, W. is unlike most of Stone’s previous work. It’s almost as if he seems unsure as to what kind of film he wanted to make — lighthearted fluff piece or serious docudrama. It leaves you wondering if this film should have been made a few years from now, once some perspective could have been gained (and Stone could have chosen his desired cinematic genre). The biggest gripe really comes down to the question: Was Bush just a clown who was taken advantage of by the neocon brainstrust of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz or was there a more clever politician regularly “misunderestimated” by everyone around him?

Bush as an unlovable clown has been done to death (especially by Saturday Night Live’s Will Ferrell, who recently brought his take on Dubya to Broadway in the side-splitting You’re Welcome America — A Final Night with George W. Bush). Stone’s Dubya has a few more functioning brain cells, but not many. However, Stone contrasts this man with one who, at times, shows a stunning awareness of how to get voters to sympathise with him. In a lot of ways, W. just adds to the myth that Bush should hold little blame for the mess the world is in today and really, that just does history a disservice.