Sunday, July 29, 2012

Movie – W. (2008)

I didn’t see the movie W. when it came out in 2008.  By that time I had had enough of George W. Bush and the last thing I wanted to do was watch a movie about him.  When I was planning this One Letter Titles category, though, it was an obvious movie to watch to see if I found it good enough to recommend.  It was probably a good thing that a few years had passed because it allowed me to be able to watch this film with a little bit of detachment.  It’s also a good thing that Director Oliver Stone decided that this wasn’t his chance to take two hours of potshots at Bush, but instead decided to craft a movie that is a relatively even handed look at George W. Bush and his relationship with his father George H.W. Bush.

The movie features an all-star cast.  Josh Brolin plays George W. Bush.  James Cromwell is George H.W. Bush.  Richard Dreyfuss plays Vice-President Dick Cheney.  Scott Glenn plays Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  Jeffrey Wright plays Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Thandie Newton plays National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.  Dennis Boutsikaris is Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.  Toby Jones is adviser Karl Rove.  Bruce McGill is CIA Director George Tenet.  Colin Hanks is a speech writer.  Rob Corddry is White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.  Ellyn Burstyn is Barbara Bush.  Elizabeth Banks is Laura Bush.  Marley Shelton is a woman George W. Bush was involved with before meeting Laura.  Jason Ritter is W.’s brother Jeb.  Noah Wyle is an early campaign manager for W.  Stacy Keach is the minister who converted W. to a born again Christian.  Ioan Gruffudd is British Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

I read through many of the comments about this movie on IMDB.  It seemed like the majority of those people had been unable to see this film through anything other than their own political blinders – if they had even seen the film at all.  People on the right condemned this film as nothing more than an attempt by a Hollywood liberal to ruin Bush’s legacy, while those on the left condemned it for not focusing more on Bush’s failures.  Neither of these groups seemed to understand what Stone’s main theme was for the film – fathers and sons.

The movie opens during W.’s first term as President.  He and his advisors are talking about what to do with Iraq and Saddam Hussein.  There are a number of flashbacks from W.’s perspective that chronicle his life from his early days at Yale, right up to deciding to run for President.  Most of these involve his interactions with his father during these events.  Intermixed with these is a year or so timeline of his first Presidential term that deals with starting the war in Iraq, through discovering there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, through the fallout from that.

People expecting to see a full biography of the man, or a pseudo-documentary concentrating on the biggest political events in his life, will be disappointed.  There is no mention at all of probably the biggest event in his life – the disputed votes in Florida during his first election.  There are also none of the rumors that floated around about his earlier days (i.e. cocaine use.)  Stone says in his commentary that he wanted to concentrate on the relationship of this man to his overachieving father, and that he didn’t want the movie to become distracted with rumor and innuendo.  He only included events that were verifiable and that related to the main story of the father and son.

George H.W. Bush was born into a rich family.  He excelled academically at Yale and was the star of his college baseball team.  He started a successful oil business and became a successful lawyer.  In politics he was a U.S Representative, the Ambassador to the U.N., the Director of the CIA, the Vice-President of the U.S., then finally the 41st President of the United States.  That’s a hell of a lot for anyone to live up to. 

The movie W. presents George W. Bush as not his father’s favorite son.  His younger brother Jeb was anointed as the one that would carry on the family legacy.  W. responds by trying to get his father’s respect, but when that fails he seems to decide that he might as well become the disappointment his father feels he is.  He runs through a series of jobs.  He drinks a lot.  He gets involved with the wrong woman.  In my favorite lines in the film his father at one point berates him, “What are you cut out for? Partying? Chasing tail? Driving drunk? What do you think you are, a Kennedy? You're a Bush. Act like one!”

His life finally starts changing for the better when two things happen.  First, he realizes that he has to give up his drinking.  As part of that he becomes a born again Christian.  The second thing is that his father brings him in to be a major advisor in his run for the Presidency.  His father makes it plain that this is only happening because Jeb is too busy in Florida to be able to help, though.  W. proves to be an effective advisor, often helping his father put things into words that the average citizen can relate to.  Despite all of this, when W. decides he is going to run for Governor of Texas his father still tells him that he doesn’t have it in him and that by losing he will further tarnish the Bush name.  Besides, Jeb is going to be running for Governor of Florida and it won’t look good if both are running at the same time.  W. defies his father, and wins the election.  (In a satisfying moment for W., Jeb loses his election.)

George H.W. Bush has the first Iraq war, but makes the decision to not oust Saddam Hussein from power.  When he loses his re-election bid, W. feels his father is mistreated because of this and vows to never make the same kind of mistake.  This leads into the scenes we have been seeing with the initiation of the second war in Iraq.

W. is given a relatively even presentation (yes, there are some of the famous verbal mistakes, as well as the “choking on a snack” incident, but he’s also shown as a man who truly believes in his principles and in doing what he feels is right.)  The same cannot be said for most of his advisors.  Every time Dick Cheney is onscreen I practically expected him to start twirling a black moustache.  Rumsfeld and Rice also come out looking pretty bad.  Colin Powell is presented as the one person trying to talk sense to everyone else, but even he caves to pressure when it comes to announcing the WMDs.

All of the performances in the film were pretty good, with the exception of Thandie Newton as Rice.  On the one hand, I didn’t even recognize Newton so you could say she disappeared into the role, but on the other hand she uses this nasally, nerdy voice that sounds nothing like Rice.  In fact, it sounds almost exactly like the voice Eddie Griffin uses when he goes undercover among “white folks” in the comedy Undercover Brother (2002).  Brolin does a good job not falling into the trap of doing a George W. Bush impression or parody.  Instead he just worked hard at getting the Texas accent correct, as well as W.’s speaking cadence.

I have to admit that I was surprised that Stone didn’t come down harder on Bush.  I also was surprised that I ended up liking the film well enough to recommend it.  I had been expecting to have my dislike for the man revived by watching this film, but that didn’t happen.  While the film also didn’t make me feel love for him, it did help me better understand some of the things that might have been motivating his actions.  Unless you haven’t had enough separation time from the end of Bush’s Presidency, I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I didn't like this film. I know what Oliver Stone was trying to do but some of it seemed like he was doing a full-on SNL parody that wasn't funny at all. It tried to take itself too seriously and the scene for me that I realized where everything was going wrong was when W. was choking on a Cheeto or pretzel and it's a scene that shouldn't have been shot no matter what Stone's intentions were. It's just another in a series of failures of a filmmaker who should be retired.

    1. You do realize that that choking event actually happened and that the world was seconds away from not having George W. Bush in it? (making it perhaps the most important scene in the film in regards to the impact.)

      I didn't remotely get a parody feel from this movie. I was actually somewhat looking for it, too, but the movie was serious - as a Presidential drama should be.

  2. Stone does do his best with this material and give us a portrait of a guy who we sometimes look at and laugh at no matter what, but the film does seem like it's a little too early for us to actually start taking him seriously. It didn't matter how good Brolin was at this impersonation, Bush is a goof and we all know that. Stone didn't really try to make us see it any differently than we already imagined. Good review Chip.

    1. Thanks. I agree that it was too soon for it when Stone made the movie.