What exactly is Oliver Stone trying to say with his biopic on our current president, “W”? It seemed nearly impossible for a director as famous for openly courting controversy in his films (“JFK,” “The Doors,” “Natural Born Killers”) to create a film that almost completely lacks a coherent point-of-view. Especially when the figure at the center of this biopic is our current president, George W. Bush, one of the most polarizing and well-known figures around the world.
The film’s elements work against one another. While Josh Brolin’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the man called “Dubya” succeeds at creating empathy in the viewer (before the viewer remembers that this is the man that has been destroying our country these past eight years), the film’s camerawork, zooming in on Bush’s face as he stuffs a burger into his mouth and licks his fingers, aims to reveal the savage, grotesque side of the man. The film’s incessant flip-flopping between sympathy and satire is frustrating, especially as it is ultimately never resolved.
“W” presents Bush’s life into three pieces: the early college/post-grad years where the Bush apparently did not want to have anything to do with politics (much less hold down any kind of job); the transformation period when Bush gives up drinking and turns to God; and finally, the early months of his administration’s so-called war in Iraq.
Stone’s vague central thesis, if one can be found amid the film’s often pointless chronological jumping and uneven tone, seems to be that Bush is defined by his relationship with his “poppy” (Bush Sr. is played more metaphorically than through “SNL”-style mimicry by James Cromwell) – not a bad thesis, really, but one that even the most amateur of Freud enthusiasts could have dreamed up. Bush Jr. spends his adult life obsessed with getting out from underneath the weight of his father’s shadow. Somehow, this lands him job as leader of the free world.
The film is fascinating as hell, and it’s even stranger than I had anticipated. The film’s satire is so small, so nuanced that often it fails to register at all. Stone plays things pretty even-handed here, on the surface. The film’s satire manifested itself most often in the little moments, like when Bush’s first encounter with the future first lady, Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks couldn’t be more adorable), who discusses her enthusiasm for reading and being open-minded. Another memorable moment is when Karl Rove (played with nerdy glee by Toby Jones) coaches Bush on things to say to keep reporters at bay as he prepares to run for governor of Texas.
Overall, “W” is a bit depressing, because it shows the type of society that propelled Bush to the presidency. Whether it’s the frat initiations, Texan barbeques, Sundays at church or meetings with his scheming cabinet (vice president Dick Cheney, as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, is fucking evil), Bush consistently feels resigned to try and please anyone and everyone around him. You (almost) feel sorry for the guy.
As Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” solemnly plays over the credits of this tragi-comedy (with a bigger emphasis on tragedy) I know that Stone has created an incredibly compelling film, but I don’t know what it all means, and don’t know that it really illuminates any part of our president we haven’t seen before.