Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Stanley Weiser
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael Jr.
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t seen W. since it first came out in 2008. At that point the jokes had gotten stale - George Bush was an mumbling idiot, who choked on a pretzel, looked like a monkey, and was controlled by Dick Cheney. We heard all this and more ad nauseum from the many late night comedians and satirists. By the end of his administration it was beyond played out.
Eight years later, I put on the film reluctantly, figuring I’d turn it off within ten minutes. Instead, I was surprised to find a film with a phenomenal cast, shot anamorphic, exploring the rise and near fall of George Bush. The film should have been released a few years into the 10s, as the memory faded and we began to understand where Bush would stand in history. My only problem with the film is the ending, where we have no idea what would happen to the man. Of course, we learned that not much has happened since, except for some interesting paintings. While in 2008 it was hard to remove Oliver Stone’s mega-liberal politics from the film, what I saw this round was a fairer (though not at all fair) portrayal of a guy who came from a successful family, struggling to find what he was meant to do.
We open with George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) at his college fraternity, sitting in an cold ice bucket in his underwear, being force-fed whiskey. When one of the pledges can’t answer a question, W. is put to the test and we see his old habit of nicknaming people, allowing him to remember anyone. During this time, his father George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) was likely running his first bid for the House of Representatives, launching his political, graduating to US Ambassador to the United Nations (March, 1971 - Jan, 1973) to the Chairperson of the RNC (Jan, 1973 - Sept, 1974) to Director of the CIA (Jan, 1976 to Jan, 1977) to Vice President under Reagan (Jan, 1981 to Jan, 1988) to finally President (Jan, 1989 to Jan, 1993).
Alongside W, and more interesting given the recent election, is Jeb Bush, who with minimal governmental experience (he was Secretary of Commerce Jan, 1987 - Sept 9, 1988), became the two term governor of Florida, soon launching his own presidential campaign. It’s clear that the family was destined for politics, creating an expectation that the next generations would continue to dedicate their lives to public service.
The problem was that the life H.W. had built put a silver spoon in the mouth of W., who developed a taste for alcohol early on and struggled with the addiction all the way through his thirties. In one great scene we see him celebrating his birthday at a country club, chugging a Bloody Mary before talking to his dad, stumbling to find the words.
He couldn’t hold a job, his alcoholism was getting worse, and he just wanted to do something that would give his life meaning. It’s here where I believe the movie came out too soon, as portraying these elements while the man was in office was more aggressive, rather than how they play now, which seems like a man who was struggling to identify himself in the shadow of his father, using alcohol as a crutch, until finally finding a grander purpose in his life. Watching this eight years later, I respected W. kicking the habit and deciding to dedicate himself to something larger and more honorable, and actually accomplishing it. Although he was the black sheep, and decided to run for Governor while Jeb was doing the same in Florida, Jeb ended up losing and W. won. He discovered a natural ability to talk and charm. He might not have had the brains, but he also knew he could surround himself with people who did, namely Karl Rove (Toby Jones) who was with him from the earliest days, blown away with W.’s natural gift to gab.
Of course, another pivotal moment, operating in conjunction with his teetotalism, was rediscovering Christianity, being Born Again in the process. This would go on to affect his policies on everything from abortion to stem cell research, as once again, he seemed less interested in the details, than in proper advisement, in this case from Reverend Earle (Stacy Keache). W. depended on Evangelism to combat his alcoholic urges and to provide strength in times of weakness. Unfortunately it led to his anti-science policies, which are now some of his most memorable, pushing us nearly a decade back in areas of stem cell research and climate change.
One of the most fascinating characters in the film is Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). Even though Powell is a four star general, having served with W.’s father during Desert Storm, his opinions and insights are chronically rejected or disputed by Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton; who gives one of the film’s great performances). Straight out of a Shakespeare play, each character has such a unique presence in the film, operating at the apex of their careers. I’m a political junkie and I couldn’t tell you who the DSoD or SoD is under the Obama administration. To think that all of these men with little to no military experience had the courage to question Powell’s insights is one of the great dynamics in any political film. We witness Powell’s frustration as his nuanced concerns are broadsided by the rest of the cabinet's superficial analysis. Jeffrey Wright shows such an inner struggle, as he questions whether he should stay and remain ignored, or to throw in the towel and give it all up.
Lastly, the dynamic between Cheney and W. is one that will go down in history, likely to take on mythological proportions, as even now conservatives I know are aware of Cheney’s unprecedented access and filtering. He controlled the information and advisement W. received, skating a thin line between deciding the course and acquiescing to his boss. In a great scene, W. instructs Cheney to respect him as President and allow him to act and speak appropriately. It highlights Cheney’s ruse, and W.’s street smarts as he senses what Cheney’s doing. Yet how far this tension went the film never really explores.
I always wonder what George W. Bush thought of his position in history. It’s one of the rare moments where the individual is immediately aware of his legacy. Each decision, action, and strategy will be written about hundreds of times, from every perspective, and yet only a few people know what actually went on in the room. I wonder if Bush felt he failed. As he’s now widely considered one of the worst presidents in modern US History, you can’t help wonder the toll that takes on a person, especially as aside from his painting, we’ve hardly heard anything from the man. It’s why I wished Oliver Stone waited a bit before diving into this project. To have seen the movie end with Bush painting in peace (or not) might have been the perfect conclusion, rather than the more ambiguous ending it contained. To think that a president has only eight short years to earn his place in history, and then remain doomed to reflect on all he did right or wrong, must eat away at a man that resided over such horrendous moments. From 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq War to the ‘08 Crash - I can’t imagine not having those moments play in your head over and over again, knowing that people actually died from the decisions you made. I hardly know anyone who defends the man, including my 94 year old grandmother who wore a pin of his face on her jacket until his last day in office. She now sees him as controlled by Cheney, and as a poor president compared to other conservatives. To think of being such a divisive figure, with so many having such bitter memories of one’s leadership. Given the film’s exploration of a man who was determined to make something of himself after so many failures; to prove to his father that he could do it; and that the father himself had failed; and that Jeb would go on to fail, losing to Donald Trump of all people - it’s as though the entire Bush family is cursed. It all plays very much like a Greek tragedy. Eerily so. I think it’s a story that could be revisited countless more times - with all of the above events, and fresh fascinating casts. George W. Bush might have earned a disreputable place in history, but I’m sure he will be remembered far longer than most. There’s just too much there for a single film and I anticipate the next.
BELOW: George W. Bush's paintings (later it'd expand into painting portraits of the veterans he sent to Iraq)
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