I had high hopes for Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic, W., but I came away disappointed. The movie had so much less pathos than the journalism it was based on.
W. fails because it flouts the cardinal storytelling maxim: Show, don't tell. There's no subtext in this movie. Stone doesn't trust us to figure out that George W. Bush is striving for his father's approval, or that Colin Powell is morally ambivalent about the invasion or Iraq, and so on. Every character states his or her motivations in clear declarative sentences.
By contrast, Bart Gellman's reported biography of Dick Cheney, The Angler, is much more emotionally compelling because Gellman is constantly showing, building a case by recounting dozens of small, concrete decisions. George W. Bush is a supporting character in Gellman's book, but he comes across as a far more interesting character.
Gellman's Bush is no affable bumber. He's shallow, unreflective, and completely convinced of his own righteousness. Gellman sees Bush as a manager who is so recklessly indifferent to the details of his operation that he really has no idea what's going on .
Stone's W. seems to have been purged of most of the petty meanness and political acumen of the real Bush.
Sometimes, Stone tries to show us the skills that set W. apart. He's not everyman. That's a Rove-scripted act, a propaganda ploy. In fact, Rove glommed onto Bush because he same something brilliant in him.
The opening scene of W. is fraternity hazing session where shirtless pledges are getting waterboarded in buckets of vodka-laced punch. One hapless pledge is asked to recite the name of every brother in the room. He can only name six of the forty brothers, so the hazers punish him by siphoning bourbon down his throat. Then it's George W.'s turn.
W. gleefully rattles off the names and nicknames of every brother in the room, to the delight of all assembled. This episode illustrates Bush's phenomenal real-life talent for remembering names and faces. Stone never follows up on this revelation.
Early in the movie, Bush is a staggering drunk. Later on, he seems vacant. Nobody ever seems to like him much.
This is a weakness in the movie because W.'s social skills explain so much about his trajectory in life. He didn't get where he was just because he was the son of a president. His brother Jeb had the same background and a much more auspicious track record, but W. became president. Stone doesn't help us understand why.
As Amanda explains in her review, we Stone's W. is one of those privileged men who is obnoxious, but who continues to think of himself as charming and witty because other people scramble to stroke ego. Stone gives us a good take on this familiar archetype, but I don't think the self-deluded boor trope captures George W. Bush in full.
It’s hard to do a movie about the Bush presidency while the debacle is ongoing. We’ve all seen and read and speculated so much about this administration. How can Stone claim to know these people better than we do?
I found myself fighting the urge to judge every performance by how well the actor mimicked real people that I see on TV every day and whom I’ve been watching, studying, arguing at, and generally obsessing about for the last eight years.
But Stone invites that kind of scrutiny by sort of playing the characters for laughs, but not being consistently funny. He won't go full-on black comedy, but he won't dig deeper than hackneyed Oedipal cliches to explain why Bush acts the way he does.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Tina Fey, who just happens to be the spitting image of Sarah Palin in addition to being whip smart and funny as hell. But I found myself taken out of the story, spot-checking each performance as an impression.
I wanted at least one of two things from W.: really good popular history, and/or, an artist’s interpretation that used dramatic license to teach something over and above what journalists and historians have been able to say so far. Stone failed to deliver either one.
Maybe the problem is that Stone excels at embellishing conspiracy theories that have yet to be substantiated. Whereas, the crimes of the Bush administration would seem like flights of fancy if they hadn’t already been documented conclusively. There isn’t much further Stone’s imagination can take this story.