Status: In theaters (opened 10/17/08)
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Stanley Weiser
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Ellen Burstyn
George W. Bush, even as an adult—even as the leader of the free world—still calls his father “Poppy.” In a way, this tells you all you need to know about Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s take on our current President. This film could’ve been called Daddy Issues, although that’s not as cool of a title as what they went with. It’s ostensibly a biography of W., focusing on how his relationship with his father—specifically his lifelong search for his father’s approval—shaped his political career. We see his story from his days as a drunken fratboy until he and his package declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The narrative begins roughly around the time the decision to invade Iraq was made, and follows the discussions leading up to that decision and what followed, while flashing back in time to show how W. got to that point.
There are some interesting choices made—as there are in any story like this—regarding which parts of Bush’s life and his Presidency to show and which to omit. I found it odd that so little time, for instance, was devoted to depicting his transformation as a born-again Christian. I can recall only two scenes between Bush and his pastor, neither as pivotal as I would’ve expected it to be. There were several depictions of prayer in the White House, though, and maybe it’s just me but I found them to be sufficiently telling. (Personally I found them to also be somewhat disturbing—I think a President leading a prayer in the Oval Office is about as appropriate as holding a fantasy football draft at a funeral home, and Stone’s repeated close-ups of hands clasped together give the hint that perhaps the practice is something he feels more people should be skeptical of, as well.) There is also very little made of his ownership of the Texas Rangers, although Stone makes an effective metaphor of Bush’s love of baseball (specifically, his ability to run down fly balls).
The timing of this film’s release isn’t as shrewdly-planned as it might have seemed only a few months ago, for several reasons: as the least-approved President in history we’re all ready to just let him go away (and hopefully quietly at that, before he screws anything else up), not to mention the fact that with the current standings in the polls, inciting outrage at the past 8 years is looking less and less necessary (although having lived through 2004, when a majority of the voters in this country looked at the biggest joke of a leader in this country’s history and said, “Gimme some more of that,” I remain doubtful of our ability to make the right decision until I see it actually come true… but I digress). This works to the film’s benefit, as it really isn’t trying to be the 2008 equivalent of Fahrenheit 9/11—which is to say, it seems to be genuinely attempting to chronicle the man’s life more than it is trying to skew the audience’s opinion of him as a President. If anything, the depiction in this film of President Bush is a sympathetic one: I found myself spending more time feeling sorry for him for his ignorance than I did hating him for his stupidity. This is due equally to the objectively hands-off approach taken by the script and direction, as well as Josh Brolin’s brilliant characterization of Bush, which is at once funny and sad, oafish yet at times slight, naive while simultaneously headstrong. Brolin gets to flex his ability as an actor, reveling in Bush’s mannerisms and speech patterns, which he has mastered in impressive fashion.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the rest of the cast, which is very hit or miss. Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Burstyn both play dignified First Ladies, and James Cromwell is as good as usual as the elder Bush (although he physically—and aurally—resembles the real man the least of anybody in this cast). Some of the depictions, however, slant more towards the caricature end of the spectrum, specifically Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, both of whom exaggerate their voice modulation to an almost comedic extent. Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Cheney and Toby Jones as Karl Rove round out the headliners of the cast and are decent in their respective roles, although they seem to have been cast as much for their physical resemblance to the real-life characters they are playing as for their acting ability. It’s nice to see Rob Corddry handle a serious role—albeit a small one—as Bush’s first press secretary Ari Fleischer. All of these are mere supporting characters, however, and the focus of the film is squarely on Brolin’s embodiment of W., which stands out above the rest not only due to screen time but due to the quality of the performance and the great amount of judgment Brolin exhibits as an actor, knowing when to play a line for laughs and when to play it for sympathy.
Speaking of lines, most of Bush’s best quotes are shoehorned into the script, and yet they don’t feel too forced. I was disappointed that they didn’t include a version of what, by my recollection, was the first of many “vacationing in Crawford” segments the news outlets grew so fond of early in his presidency, when he related a story of spotting an “armadillah” on his ranch. Maybe that would’ve been too much, though. After all, we already have to hear him beg his Poppy’s approval on several occasions.