‘W.’ is a Bipartisan Annoyance

Posted October 20, 2008 at 4:03pm

“W.” is a film that will likely enrage Republicans and frustrate Democrats.

Fans of George W. Bush will say director Oliver Stone’s new film is a heinous portrait of the sitting president. Those who deplore the Texan will grind their teeth in irritation as the film forces them to relive the aggravating decisions leading up to the Iraq War.

Essentially, “W.” is a re-run of Bush’s first term with little new insight into the workings of the Bush administration. Yes, they want to invade Iraq. Yes, they want to take down Saddam Hussein. But don’t we know all of this already? This makes the whole movie feel predictable and exhausting.

“W.” opens with the members of the Bush Cabinet sitting in the Oval Office trying to come up with a name for the Middle East that will inspire Americans to go to war. “Axis of Weasels” is considered for half a beat before the group settles on “Axis of Evil.”

The film follows the president — played by a convincing Josh Brolin — and his advisers as they go forward with the war and deal with its consequences. Predictably, Vice President Cheney — played by a wonderful Richard Dreyfuss who does not fall into the clichéd Cheney we’ve come to see on comedy shows — is the puppet master, though Bush is constantly reminding him that he is the one in control. Jeffrey Wright as Secretary of State Colin Powell provides a voice of reason, while Thandie Newton as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice acts as a yes man (or woman), agreeing with the president on almost everything.

Interspersed throughout scenes from Bush’s first term are flashbacks to his youth. From being hazed in the basement of a frat house at Yale University to buying the Texas Rangers to finding Jesus after a lifetime of drinking, the flashbacks are where Stone attempts to humanize the man in the White House. Only it doesn’t quite work.

Stone does everything he can to make Bush look dimwitted and unrefined. From having him talk with his mouth full to using words like “misunderestimate,” all the stops are pulled out to make Bush a laughing stock.

At one point the president is leading his Cabinet members through the fields of his Texas ranch in the heat. They’re discussing foreign policy, and he misses a turn and gets them lost. In a later scene, he’s shown sitting on the toilet with his pants down talking to his wife, Laura Bush. Stone’s President Bush is a caricature of the president, rather than a real portrait of the man in office.

At times the film seems conflicted between making fun of Bush and trying to invoke sympathy for him. For instance, the film shows how hard his father, former President George H.W. Bush, is on him. At one point after the elder Bush gets a call about a girl claiming she is carrying W’s baby, he says “You disappoint me, Junior, deeply disappoint me.”

Later when the younger Bush wins the Texas gubernatorial race, he is shown asking Laura Bush, played by Elizabeth Banks, whether she thinks his father will ever be happy with him. In Stone’s view, it is this constant pressure that inspires the younger Bush to get into the family business despite his early claims that politics didn’t interest him. Throughout the film the family places their hopes for a legacy on the shoulders of Bush’s older brother, Jeb, a fact that dogs the president for years.

All in all, the film is easy to watch and doesn’t challenge the audience. In many ways it feels like a “Saturday Night Live” skit that won’t end. Brolin might as well be Will Ferrell squinting his eyes and talking in a southern accent. These flaws are the fault of Stone and the material. We’ve seen nearly eight years of comedians, writers and cartoonists mocking Bush. At this point, the whole act feels tired and rather boring.