- Released Internationally on 17/10/08
- Released in Malta by KRS on 31/12/08
As George W. Bush’s eight years in office come to a close, he is without doubt one of the most recognizable and talked about people of the century so far. With his decisions affecting millions, and his media presence frequent and worldwide, he has been the face of America for a very turbulent two terms, and has stirred emotions (mostly negative) in people across the globe. With the dust hardly having settled, and as his face on the news was being replaced by those of Obama, McCain and Hillary Clinton, Oliver Stone was cooking up his biopic just in time for the elections.
Stone has never shied away from controversy, and made a name directing celebrated films about war (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), presidential controversy (JFK, Nixon) and the use of violence and the media (Natural Born Killers). His recent, weaker efforts included one of the first major films about 9/11 (World Trade Centre), although this latter film skirted controversy and focused on the humane aspect. In W., Stone combines all the above topics and views to make a film of two parts – a look at the life and rise to power of a president’s son, who defied the odds to become president himself, twice; and a controversial look at why said president chose to invade Iraq in March 2003.
The two aspects of the film run in parallel, with Stone switching comfortably back and forth between Bush’s past personal and political life, and the security council meetings in 2002/3 before the Iraq strike. We travel back to W’s high-school years and early career disappointments, which didn’t go down to well with his father (the eventual president, of course). Stone paints a picture of W as the rebel son, and Bush senior having more trust and hope for Jeb, the younger, smarter son. But after beating alcoholism and finding a good political advisor, W defied his parents’ wishes and ran for governor, an eventual victory that started him on the road to two terms at the White House, as opposed to his father’s one.
Interesting and novel as the flashbacks may be, Bush’s personal life pales in comparison to the oval office drama of the post-9/11 days, which we remember so clearly and which are obviously still affecting the world today. Weapons of mass destruction, UN inspectors, anthrax, aluminium tubes, Saddam, Powell, freedom fries – it’s all here, and it’s amazing that more than five years have already passed. The whole Iraq debate is heightened further by comparisons with Bush senior’s similar decisions in the first Iraq war. This whole Iraq part could have been made into a film of its own, and considering how long W feels, maybe it should have.
Stranger than fiction
The challenge, of course, is separating the fact from the conjecture. We can all go back and check what was said in press conferences and in UN meetings, but we can only guess what was said during high-level cabinet meetings, and when Bush senior used to scold his son. Still, Stone makes it all seem believable and plausible, with the advantage of hindsight. There’s even a healthy dose of ‘dubyaspeak’ – lovely quotes from the wordsmith himself – tossed into the dialogue, including his ‘misunderestimated’, his ‘fool me once’ gaffe, and his ‘containment doesn’t hold any water’ wisdom.
Who’s in it?
Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) steals the show as the man in charge. Despite having a much bigger jaw, the resemblance works well enough in the film, and once the hair, swagger, voice and expressions are thrown in, there are a few scenes where you could be mistaken for thinking it was archive footage. Elizabeth Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) is poised and blow-dried as his wife Laura. James Cromwell (The Queen, L.A. Confidential) is ominous and dominating (although not too lookalike) as Bush senior. Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Mr. Holland’s Opus) is eerie and Machiavellian as vice-president Dick Cheney, and he is depicted as one of the major forces behind the invasion (rightfully so, in retrospect). Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, Syriana) tries his best to prevent invasion as Secretary of State Colin Powell, but eventually is convinced, and convincing, otherwise. Thandie Newton (Crash, M:I-2) tries her best to impersonate Condoleezza Rice, but ends up making a caricature out of her. Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream) is Barbara Bush, and Toby Jones (The Painted Veil, Finding Neverland) is Karl Rove, the political mastermind who was behind W’s rise to success. Scott Glenn (The Silence of the Lambs) is secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?!) and Ioan Gruffudd (The Fantastic Four) makes a short and awkward cameo as Tony Blair.
In the end.
The board-room wrangles that led to the decision to invade Iraq make for fascinating viewing five years later with the war still raging, though Bush never openly admits his mistake in the film, as he has more or less done in real life. His personal past and family scenarios are watchable, but not very relevant because ultimately all that matters is that he got the top job. Plus they must be taken with a pinch of salt since they’re partly guesswork. The subject matter is definitely worthy of a film, but maybe this was made too soon, and too much was crammed in.