On the Aisle
by Tony Macklin
“W” is the October surprise.
The movie won’t change anybody’s ideas about the values of the last eight years. But it may make some of us think differently about their protagonist.
If one expects — or demands — a Liberal screed against G.W. Bush, this is not the movie for him or her. If one wants a defense of the president or his actions, this is not the movie. If one goes with a closed mind, this movie will disappoint.
I always wondered how Bob Woodward in his lengthy meetings with G.W. for his books could take him seriously. Now I think I understand. Of all things, it took Oliver Stone to make me consider G.W. Bush in a different way.
By the end of “W” I still didn’t want G.W. to be president, but I’d probably be comfortable having a beer with him.
Director Stone, writer Stanley Weiser (Wall Street,1987), and most of all, actor Josh Brolin humanize G.W. In the movie he’s limited and self-serving, but he’s also sincere, earnest, and engaging, with moments of quick wit. I never thought I’d say “wit” and “G.W.” in the same sentence.
Early in the movie, he shows facility as he names nicknames of members at a drinking binge of a frat he is pledging. He’s not wise, but neither is he without some smarts. But in his younger years he was a drinking fool.
It’s obvious that the Bushes—George Herbert Walker and Barbara—were grooming their son Jeb to be governor of Florida and then president. To his father’s and mother’s chagrin, G.W. became the fly in the anointment.
With some evidence, Stone shows G.W. as the black sheep of the Bush family, not able to find his footing and continually disappointing his father, the 43rd president.
Josh Brolin is a marvel as G.W. Perhaps his and Stone’s best decision was to deep-six the patented smirk that we’ve seen ad nauseum on TV. Brolin smirks only one or two times.
What is ironic is that Brolin also is the son of a successful father, actor James Brolin, so he can relate to a father’s shadow. (A tidbit: both Josh and G.W. have moms named some form of Barbara. Josh’s stepmom is Barbra Streisand.)
The rest of the cast comes close to matching the exemplary performance by Brolin. The “villain,” of course, is Dick Cheney. Richard Dreyfuss nails the role, even capturing the gleam in Cheney’s eye.
The person who receives the most dismissive treatment in the film is Condi Rice (Thandi Newton), who is portrayed as a weak sycophant to G.W.
Ellen Burstyn plays feisty and emotional Barbara Bush, who realizes that G.W. is more like her than his father.
James Cromwell is convincing as GHWB, the powerful, perceptive, and frustrated father.
Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell, who is pulled in opposite directions by his loyalty to the president and his doubts. His last words to Cheney are, “F–k you, Dick.” “W” is a PG-13 rated movie, so the f-bomb can be used only once. It’s used well.
Stacy Keach, who hasn’t had a good part in years, has a meaty role as G.W.’s evangelist mentor, Rev. Earle Hudd. Toby Jones looks the part of Karl Rove, but is a little too fey. It may be Stone’s revenge to portray Rove as so slight.
The only bland, generic role is Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks, Invincible, 2006), as the doting Laura. It’s a missed opportunity.
Director Oliver Stone has a reputation as a wild-eyed liberal. But at his best, his art transcends his politics. His Nixon (1995) is perhaps his most underrated movie, because he tries to humanize his subject. “W” may face a similar fate.
Stone saves his most liberal-oriented moment until the credits, when he uses Bob Dylan singing “With God on Our Side.”
Stone related his movie Nixon to Welles’s “Citizen Kane” (1941); he seems to relate “W” to tragedy. Dubya even makes an allusion to Julius Caesar’s being stabbed by an ally.
It’s hard to see G.W. as a tragic hero; it’s easier to see him like Willie Loman in a modern tragedy about a common man. It’s also easier to see his father as the tragic figure. Greek tragedy, with the fall of its tragic hero, brings about the fall of a country. Oedipus brought a curse to his land.
In “W” in a nightmare, G.W. hears his father say to him, “You’ve ruined it, the Bush name, it took 200 years to build, and you ruined it.”
Has G.W. led to the fall of a family dynasty? Or more?
“W” is not the stuff of tragedy. Or is it?