Having sat through the entirety of Oliver Stone’s promising yet ultimately disappointing George W. Bush biopic W., I wanted to scream at him that he should leave poor Freud out of his presidential portrait. There is much to commend here so long as the movie concentrates on the tensions between politics and policy in the Bush presidency, but in his attempt to understand what makes the outgoing president act the way he does, Stone in my opinion fails spectacularly. I end up hoping that the movie’s satire simply isn’t sharp enough, because that’s the only way I could get something out of his constant hammering on the argument that W.’s entry into politics was motivated by a wish to show his father that he was not an utter failure. Unfortunately, 43’s quest for fatherly love is sloppy as satire and and unconvincing as psychological drama.
I guess what I’m really saying is that Stone let’s Bush off the hook too easily. To simplify a little, W. reminds me more of a reverse version of his Castro documentary Commandante (2003) than this nuanced account of Nixon (1995). When I heard that Oliver Stone was preparing a movie about one of the least popular yet most mythologized presidents in American history I wasn’t hoping for just another reiteration of how unbelievable it is that this man could become president in the first place. I was hoping for satire, not farce. We have known for years already that the intellectual rigor of 43 is unimpressive, and that he is prone to make gut-level decisions. To simply race through a greatest (OK, maybe not) hits of his presidency, and otherwise confirm every suspicion we might have about him, risks reducing him to a comic relief and a political puppet, alongside brilliant but cynical political brains like Karl Rove, Don Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Of course Josh Brolin’s imitation was funny in the beginning, but after a while I began to feel that this lighthearted comedy was made to cover the fact that Stone had nothing substantial to say.
Since it would have been vital even to accepting this movie as satire, Stone’s real sin is that he really doesn’t try to understand what drives George W. Bush as a politician. He continually yells from the rooftops that George wants to convince his father, Bush 41, that he can be every bit as successful as his brother Jeb, but are we really expected to believe that his yearning for parental approval is what motivates him for high political office? If this is meant as satire, it’s not exactly daring. Every person in the world could make the argument that George W. Bush wanted to run for president to prove he could do it, or to finish the war that his father started, but that doesn’t make it neither particularly funny nor convincing.
Thus, the elements of broad-brushed political comedy was what worked best for me in this movie, simply because they were political by nature. It definitely feels a little cheap when Rumsfeld’s ‘old Europe’ remark is forced in there somewhere. simply because it’s so easily remembered, but at least it keeps the attention away from the inevitable psychodrama between George W., Jeb and his parents. The scenes from the situation room, and how Colin Powell slowly gave in to the growing consensus about the wisdom of invading Iraq is handled brilliantly, and Richard Dreyfuss makes one extremely scary Dick Cheney. In scenes like these I sense what kind of movie this could have been, if Stone hadn’t decided that the tragic/comedic fratboy-turned-world’s-most-powerful-man story was the one he really wanted to tell. It might be that I simply love politics, but the insider’s story is to me by far the most interesting, even though reporting by journalists like Bob Woodward and others have made even these accounts pretty well-known over the years.
So, why did Oliver Stone back off, then? Some critics have argued that it could be because he feels that the failures of the Bush Administration has been so massive and are still so new, that we are left with no choice but to try to laugh at them. It’s certainly plausible. The problem with that comes if this becomes the gold standard of movies about George W. Bush (considering that Stone himself was the one most likely to make a motion picture indictment of 43). While the Clinton presidency could easily have made a nice Freudian comedy, Bush’s legacy is all too grave for that.