Having the misfortune of spending the Bush years in a backwards, hick small town while growing up in a strongly Democratic (or, at least, anti-Republican) household has always put me in an awkward position. For some reason or another, I always thought that young people could tell "right" from "wrong" and knew that Bush, like my parents had taught me, was the devil incarnate. Needless to say, I was shocked the morning after some presidential debate between Kerry and Bush in 2004 when nearly all of my friends loudly voiced their support for Bush (of the two friends who did back me-- we called ourselves "The Democratic Bitches"-- one also lived in a strongly Democratic household and the other's strongest attack on Bush was "He's really short"). The shock continued awhile later in my English class when I was put in the unfortunate position of single-handedly defending the anti-war movement against a plethora of Bible-thumping, ignorant-ass motherfuckers. I just couldn't understand how these people couldn't see just how much George Bush was fucking this country over. Didn't Fahrenheit 9/11 make it completely obvious, or did they just think Michael Moore was making everything up?
With my obvious hatred of everything Bush does and stands for, I was really fascinated to see what W. (Oliver Stone, 2008) was going to do with Bush's life: would Stone savagely rip him apart, turn it into a complete farce or make us feel for the poor man? Stone, somewhat surprisingly, opts to go down the softer road with a couple of amusing moments thrown in. A lot of critics would have preferred for W. to have been a lot harder on Bush and his dumbass administration, but I give Stone credit for not taking the bait. It would have been easy for him to turn Bush's life into a complete mockery, cutting him down to size. Instead, Stone dares us to empathize with the soon-to-be ex-president and I think that's a lot more daring than any political statement he could have made with this film. Open any newspaper, opinion column or blog and we can see that Bush is a complete fucktard; Stone wants to dig a little deeper and figure out why he's such an abysmal president.
I'm not going to deny that the film has problems: the tones change too wildly between overlapping scenes, there is a strange obsession with food that creeps into nearly every scene that's eerily reminiscent of that weird buffet scene in Myra Breckinridge and, towards the end, the film seems to come to a natural climax but then starts up again multiple times. However, the films best scenes easily outweigh the few that don't work. I loved all of the cabinet meeting scenes which delicately walked the fine line between farce and dark comedy. They effectively show how clueless and powerless Bush is without going over board on the easy jokes. At one point, Bush (played magnificently by Josh Brolin) tells Dick Cheney (a wonderfully evil Richard Dreyfuss), "I'm the decider" but we can all see who really runs things in the White House.
The ensemble Stone has gathered for this film is impeccable, one of the best I've seen in a long time. Josh Brolin is simply magnificent as George Junior. He could have easily slipped into cheap parody or sketch comedy characterization, but he makes Junior seem like a real person, flaws, quirks and all. Dreyfuss is the standout among the supporting cast; his line reading of "There is no exit strategy. We stay" when asked about Iraq is one of the most horrifying things I've ever heard. James Cromwell is emotionally effecting as the closed off Bush Senior. Jeffrey Wright, as Colin Powell, the lone voice of reason in Bush's cabinet, really makes you feel his frustration with everyone who can't see what a colossal disaster the Iraq invasion is going to be. Ellen Burstyn really makes the most out of her underwritten role, standing up to her illogical son and never letting a moment pass by in which she doesn't voice her opinion loud and clear. In fact, the only members of the cast who stick out in a negative way are Thandie Newton (she plays Condi Rice in much the same way Bette Midler would have) and Elizabeth Banks (although it's not her fault that the role is simply boring).
Like I mentioned before, Stone really makes you empathize with Bush on his long, complicated road to the White House. Long before he ever became the president, he was considered the fuck-up of the Bush family. He couldn't keep up in college, control his drinking, maintain a job or please his "poppy." The only reason he went into politics, according to the film, was to gain some respect in the eyes of his father. By the end of the film, you're almost ready to forgive him for the shit he's unleashed upon this country. I say "almost" because doing whatever you want and, consequently, screwing up one of largest nations in the world is a big price to pay to prove poppy wrong. Oliver Stone doesn't bring this up explicitly in W., but he knows it's running through the back of our minds and that's ultimately more frightening. B