Friday, March 6, 2009

W. - With God On His Side

Unless you’ve been in coma for the last 8 years, it is impossible not to have an opinion about George W. Bush and his years as leader of the “free world”.

W. was a disappointment as a president. In many ways so is the movie W. Oliver Stone has presented the George W. Bush most of us know about. Drunk, wastrel, drifting from job to job, living in dad’s and brother Jeb’s shadows. Then AA, born again Christian, family man, successful Texas Rangers baseball team owner, Texas Governor and finally the ultimate office. His early life as the black sheep of the Bush clan transformed into a remarkably successful electoral career after becoming Governor of Texas in 1994. His actual achievements are more contentious.

I can’t bring myself to read the intimate details of W.’s White House or his family life so others can argue about the accuracy of his backstage life. Given Stone’s notorious tendency to make-believe, National Security Council meetings may not have finished with a prayer.

This story revolves around Junior’s relationship with his father, the 41st President of the United States of America. George Senior was a one-termer so son had the last laugh on father. Both now face the same probable judgment by history, namely failed presidencies.

Stone uses W.’s unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978 to set the scene for his later political triumphs. His Democrat opponent paints W. as a blue blood carpetbagger with loose morals. George remarks afterwords that he’s going to get the Christian and the Texas bits right next time. His background of patrician family and Washington (or Bushington as they joke at one stage) insider disappeared during his governorship of Texas. He became a god-fearing man’s man. Guns, god and gaols were a winning formula.

Josh Brolin is made for the part. He has the square jaw and the vacant look. He makes George’s propensity for singular verbs with plural subjects seem a virtue at times. Toby Jones, as key Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove, has a lead role in this film and is convincing as the poll driven spin doctor. A typical exchange:
Karl Rove: If you can't stand in front of those guys two minutes and come up with one plausible answer what the hell are we running for governor for?

George W. Bush: Just tell me what to do, whatever it takes. Look if I need to read the whole damn Constitution I'll do it.
In the scene that follows he coaches Bush in giving answers at press interviews. It’s a gem on the art of political veneer, of polishing the cue ball.

I always thought that W. read an excellent speech and gave effective responses to obvious questions as long as he kept to the script. He came a long way from his BBC interview before the 2000 election when he was unable to name either the President of Pakistan or the Prime Minister of India. He was explaining his South Asia policy but obviously hadn’t been briefed on these details. When Hamas won the Palestinian election he was completely flabbergasted at a press conference. Also not in the script.

Most of the political insiders in this tale are well known. The members of the cast have varying success in mimicing them. Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney is brilliant, Ellen Burstyn shines as Barbara Bush and it’s hard to tell when it's Bruce McGill or CIA Director George Tenet on screen.

Scott Glenn doesn’t capture Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s cheeky glint in the eye and Thandie Newton does not do justice to Condoleezza Rice, making her appear far too obsequious. This kind of imitation is hit-and-miss. It is rare for it to work as well as it did in Frost/Nixon but then there was a greater distance from the protagonists. Ultimately it’s a case of good acting winning over physical or vocal imitation. Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush is a case in point, becoming the person rather than an impersonation. Jeffrey Wright also pulls off a serviceable Secretary of State Colin Powell by playing it fairly straight.

James Cromwell has played a lot of Presidents but he’s far too engaging compared with the dull, colourless George H. W. Bush. It’s hard to believe that he ever used a line like, “Who do you think you are... a Kennedy? You're a Bush. Act like one.”

The structure of the film, with its flashbacks to key moments in W.’s life, works well. The “present” is mainly his first term in office with the emphasis on the Iraq war. At times the selection of events seems bizarre such as the peanut choking incident. Despite many references to 9/11 we don’t see either his worst or his best moments. The incident when Bush seemingly panicked in the classroom that day and the war president speech at ground zero are omitted. The reconstruction of the Mission Impossible aircraft carrier speech adds nothing new to our understanding of this piece of propaganda. The script often lacks originality or insight in dealing with these events.

The war room has eerie echoes of Dr. Strangelove. Peter Sellers as French President Jacques Chirac would have been a great match. You get the feeling that W. would have benefited from watching a few anti-war movies and reading the occasional book. The War President was more of a Sports President.

Nevertheless George W. has an inner life. Besides a dream when his father confronts him in the Oval Office, his psyche centres on baseball with his successes and failures played out on the field. Clichés about left field and curve balls seem to be lurking throughout the film. The luncheon debriefing on Weapons of Mass Destruction is a prime example. "Why wasn't I told."

There isn’t much that subtle about this film, especially the music. The score helps to move the story along with appropriate numbers like Winging My Way Back Home. The final credits finish with Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side”:
So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.
Oliver Stone’s third film in his U.S. Presidents series, following JFK and Nixon, is hard to classify. Comedy, farce, tragedy. It depends on the point from which you view W.’s political record. There is certainly a lot of dark humour.

Early publicity had indicated that this was a sympathetic treatment of Bush. It does present him as having a mind of his own not just as a puppet of his advisors. It always helps if you are on a mission from god. “I believe God wants me to be president!” However, I can’t imagine it being a hit in the Bush family circle.

If you’re a political junkie, go along but be quick as it’s not likely to have a long run at the cinemas.

Thanks to New Matilda and Hoyts for complimentary tickets.


  1. Not a bad review, although I think you're as soft on W as Stone. Fancy calling him a 'disappointment', with what that implies! The film gets it right in showing him to be vacuous and ignorant, but glosses over his many failings - virtually everything he tried his hand at. Although it correctly suggests that it was all handed to him on a plate. Obviously, there is only so much you can show in a couple of hours, but too much was left out, which might have revealed important aspects of his character or lack thereof - the execution of 150 people during his lack-lustre governorship, the utterly unconscionable massive tax cuts to the rich which have contributed so vastly to the present plight, the response to Hurricane Katrina etc. I think the film concentrated too much on the Iraq war to be a convincing bio-movie. And you're right, the portrayal of his father seemed hopelessly wrong. In jumping too rapidly from one thing to another, the film gets nowhere near even asking the big question, let alone answering it: how the hell did a man so unutterably lacking in quality or qualities ever get to be President for two terms? The displayed modicum of vapid ambition and the supposed relationship with his father is quite inadequate in explaining this tragic political phenomenon. But Dreyfus was brilliant, especially in his really big scene in the 'war room'.

  2. "Disappointment" was tongue in cheek. For my political views please visit 'Labor View from Bayside".

    Agree with most of what you say!