Oliver Stone’s W. resonates today like an artifact from another reality, sometimes even another planet. This 2008 biopic of George W. Bush explores a political and personal life that was, at the time in many circles, judged for its ineptitude. In the light of this year and this time, it feels downright picturesque.
That’s not to say Stone’s film doesn’t expose how the foundation to Now was built. But as a biopic, W. feels surprisingly routine. It features a screenplay by Stanley Weiser, who wrote Stone’s WALL STREET. The movie is not chronological, opening after 9/11 and noting the Bush Administration’s run-up to war before flickering back in time.
Josh Brolin stars as Bush. We meet him when he is the President of the United States, but it’s not long before we’re transported back to a Delta Kappa Epsilon initiation at Yale. The younger version of Dubya eschews the politics of his family, probably on account of the liquor. He goes through a series of trials, sparring with his father (James Cromwell) and living in the shadow of his brother Jeb (Jason Ritter).
Bush goes through jobs and women and drinks like they’re going out of style and all the while Poppy admonishes him about having no direction. When Dubya meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), things settle somewhat. But it’s not until Bush meets Jesus that he transforms, heads to Washington, becomes the President, and leads the United States in the incursion of Iraq.
Stone uses a number of motifs throughout W. to draw things together. Throughout the movie, Bush is shown trying to catch a baseball. At the conclusion, he dreams the crowd is cheering and he can save the day – and the game – by making the Big Catch. We know how it goes.
That’s the thrust of W. and what makes the picture interesting. We are watching a very human drama behind decisions that impact countless lives and we are witnessing a human being. He is contending with problems that many go through, like simply trying to impress a parent.
But most of us don’t obtain the power of George W. Bush. Most of us aren’t born into an aristocratic family. That doesn’t make Bush a more congenial figure, but it does explain some of the moral directions taken by the Bush Administration. His deep need to surpass his father led to war in Iraq and to a pernicious legacy that endures to this day.
W. is well-acted and well-directed. Brolin’s Bush is a vision of a man rising beyond the level of his ineptitude, but he never plays it over-the-top. And Stone is cautious, sometimes overly so. With excellent performers in key roles, like Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. W. never does, though. He just wants to catch that damn ball.