It seems as though there are two films in Oliver Stone‘s W., fighting to separate themselves from each other. There is the story of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), the president who took his country to war in 2003. Then there is Dubya, the son in awe of his father, George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell); who feels rivalry with his little brother Jeb (Jason Ritter); and who sees politics as the family business. The present of the film is seen through meetings surrounding the 2003 Iraq invasion, with Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) et al. Through flashbacks, a light is shone on Bush’s character and family.
In the production notes from this morning’s press screening, Stone goes to great lengths to avoid saying that this film is about Bush being a bad, bad president. An example: “We set out to show his reasoning for the Iraq war as a function of who he is, his personal history.” Stone goes on to say,
I can’t say I liked Oedipus when I walked out of ‘Oedipus’, I can’t say I liked Agamemnon, I can’t say I like many of the Greek heroes. Some of them are outright assholes, but you watch them, you follow their story. That’s drama.
Well, poor Oedipus was the victim of a fate foretold before his birth, and Agamemnon came from a supposedly cursed family – you’ve got to feel a little sorry for them. Ultimately, though, they were never real; Dubya very much is. Mr Stone, it’s a bit more than just “drama” when you suggest your incumbent president belongs in the same category as these possible “outright assholes.”
I’m not a political film-maker Goddamnit! I’m a dramatist and I always have been. I’ve done some political subjects, but I’ve always done them through people, whether it’s Jim Garrison as a lonely DA in New Orleans going up against a huge monstrosity of a system – it’s always been based on people.
(from an interview for the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine)
A dramatist with a special interest in political subjects? A director with an interest in the drama of politics? Whatever he would prefer to call himself, it is clear in W. that there is a tension between the political careers of his real-life subjects and the inner story – personality, family, relationships – of Dubya himself. To properly explore both sides, Stone really needs a lot more time and space than this film gives him.
Back to the production notes for W., where Stone says,
For many years, I was under the impression that it was more a mother-son story but the more we researched, we found out that the father plays a much bigger role than we thought.
The general view of Barbara Bush (Ellen Burstyn) is that she wore the trousers. Jeb Bush has said that their mother ran “a kind of matriarchy… when we were growing up, dad wasn’t at home. Mom was the one to hand out the goodies and the discipline.” Yet Barb only has a tiny role in the film. She barely interacts with Dubya – despite supposedly being a great influence on him, as well as on her husband. There is an emptiness at the heart of the film where you expect some more candid conversations between mother and son. We get nothing.
The relationship between Bushes Senior and Junior is intriguing, especially as only one president – Bill Clinton – separated their administrations. The film could have done with a lot more of Bush v Bush. Bush Snr’s disappointment in his drunken, feckless son (pre-Christian rebirth at age 40) is repeated too often, but the idea that Bush Jnr went after Saddam Hussein for “Poppy”‘s sake is fascinating. In the 1990 flashback, President George H. W. Bush and his son discuss the Iraqi leader, with Bush Snr saying,”I’ve always believed in leaving personal fellings out of politics.” However, his dislike of Saddam is clear, and, 13 years later, Dubya feels vindicated in pursuing the man who gave his father so many headaches. This is what can happen when a presidency is given over to a dynasty.
It’s a deeply troubled father-son relationship that these two presidents have. Bush Jnr moans, “I’ll never get out of Poppy’s shadow,” and, when his father wins the presidential election of 1988, looks sour and says, “I wish he’d lost.” He is striving for gravitas, in a family of Harvard MBAs and governors and presidents. He wants to be remembered as a major part of the Bush family mythology, not just a footnote.
There is also the small matter of oil, and it’s brought up quite openly by the fictional Dick Cheney, as the major reason for going to war. Our gateway into the surreal world of the Bush admin’s war cabinet meetings is the often shocked figure of Colin Powell. Patronised by Bush, talked over Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), and hated to an almost tangible degree by Dick Cheney, Powell is the one voice of dissent among the ranks. When he asks why they are planning this war, the plinky piano music starts up (there is an oddly jaunty/melodramatic score that announces itself, rather than enhancing the film – distracting), and Cheney has to stop himself from executing a Dr Evil impression before saying, “We’re 5% of the world’s population – we need 25% of the energy reserves.” Where are they? Iraq. Where else are they? Iran. Behind him, little American flags pop up on the map of the world. What’s their exit strategy? Cheney: “There is no exit. We stay.” It’s almost too evil.
There are some nice impressions round that table. Josh Brolin gets Dubya’s voice down well, and some lovely prosthetic work makes him look very close to the man himself in certain lights. James Cromwell does a magnificent job as Bush Snr – raising the bar high for the impersonations around him. Toby Jones makes a suitably creepy Karl Rove, who, at one point, creepily calls Bush Snr “Poppy,” just as Dubya does. Shudder. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell is warmer and more likeable than all of the others, seeming to share our hindsight from here in 2008, while being ignored by the others. Ioan Gruffud’s Tony Blair is only in the film for a few minutes – as long as it takes Bush to convince him to join the war effort. A minute on the lips, a lifetime of regret, as Blair implied when he spoke to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show on September 18th this year (fast forward to 05:14). Gruffud’s Blair voice is fantastic, although he looks more like David Miliband than Blair.
Thandie Newton’s Condi Rice is an interesting one, at times trembly of voice (a verbal tic skewered by Tina Fey on her sitcom 30 Rock), confident, a fish out of water among the boys, and finally, sadly, a chirpy little yes-girl following Bush and Tony Blair around. As Oliver Stone tiptoes around his dislike of Bush in the production notes, so does Newton on Rice:
After I met with Oliver and he asked me to the part, I went back to London, where I live and endured a healthy dose of terror… When I thought of Margaret Thatcher in England, who was such an iconic figure when I was growing up… she employed certain affectations to make herself more likeable, more accessible and I found similarities in Condoleezza Rice. There is a manufactured quality to her and I tried to discover the manufacturer… [I] try to empathise when I approach a role… but that was more of a struggle with this character.
“There is a manufactured quality to her and I tried to discover the manufacturer.” That line is fantastic, and imbued with Newton’s distaste for her character. Like Thatcher, Rice’s high appointment was a step forward in an arena dominated by men. The fact that they both emerged as very right-wing, and not particularly progressive, is a disappointment. Newton suggests it in her comparison.
Should you go and see it? Yes. Couldn’t you tell by the length of this review? The film isn’t perfect, but Bush is going to be dissected over and over again in our lifetimes, so get a head start on it now. There’s some good stuff to talk about in W.
The London Film Festival hosts W.‘s European premiere tonight at 7:30 – tickets are still available. The 1pm screening tomorrow is booked up. W. is released on 7th November.
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An excellent and concise review over on the Orange Film Blog