Chronicling his college years to those during which he was President of the United States, W. tells the story of the 43rd President, George W. Bush (Josh Brolin). If there was one recent President who has had as much controversy as the younger Bush, I can’t think of one. W. doesn’t attempt to criticize him further; it’s actually a relatively sympathetic portrayal of a man who had no business being in office, and who was just following God’s word. No, seriously.
The film is presented to us in a non-linear fashion, bouncing around from the 1970s to the last couple of years of the Bush regime. We begin with Bush as a crazy college kid, unable to hold down a job long enough due to a lack of interest and a problem with alcohol. Oh, and his father doesn’t love or respect him — at least, not as much as his brother, Jeb (Jason Ritter). Yes, the older George Bush (James Cromwell) plays a large part in the film, and presumably in the life of Junior. George W. just wants to appease his father and listen to the Good Lord.
I suppose that’s why the film doesn’t seem like it’s terribly negative when it comes to the man and the job he did in office. How can we be critical when all he wants to do is win his father’s affection and do what God tells him? He knows he’s not the right man for the job — he doesn’t even want to be President, so he says — but if doing so will solve both problems, and potentially help the world in its desire to stop terrorism, he’ll do it. He’s a hero, if intentions were all that mattered. He just isn’t skilled or smart enough to follow through on them.
The non-linear storytelling style allows director Oliver Stone to juxtapose certain events from Bush’s past with the ones happening later on in his life. Or, it would, but the two timelines rarely seem to correlate. There are also some dream sequences involving Bush on a baseball field, or playing out fictional events in his mind. We’re getting in his head and the film wants us to get on his side. He’s just a man in over his head.
And there are so many people around him who attempt to control him and shape America in their views, not in his. The biggest perpetrator is Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), although there are several other people attempting to sway him. It really feels as if W. wants to convince us that Bush didn’t do anything wrong except say “yes” to the suggestions from those around him. That’s fine. We have enough anti-Bush sentiments floating around. One that portrays him as simply naive is at least slightly fairer than one which says he was behind 9/11 and invaded Iraq because he is secretly Satan, or whatever the current conspiracy theory is.
The real question is: How much of the film is true? I think the answer is that it ultimately doesn’t matter. The film isn’t coming out during a time when it will influence much of the public, and even if it does, what’s that going to accomplish? It works as entertainment and it might make you think a bit harder about the time Bush was President, but I don’t think it’s meant to be true-to-life.
Much of the film is successful because of the actors. You need strong impersonations in a film like this, especially with it coming out not even a decade after Bush held office. In the leading role, Josh Brolin got down the voice and mannerisms of the young Bush, even if he didn’t really look like he fit in during the college scenes. Could a younger actor not have been cast to play this point in time? Still, in terms of impersonations, Brolin is superb as Bush once he’s aged a bit.
The supporting cast looks and talks similar to how I assume the actual people do. Dreyfuss as Cheney is perhaps the highlight, and the scenes when Dreyfuss clashes with Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell are among the film’s highlights. As the parents, James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn are fantastic, even if there’s less resemblance between them and their son in the film than in real life. Elizabeth Banks shows up as Laura Lane Welch, who later becomes Bush’s wife, and has the voice but not the look of the real deal, especially after 30 years pass and she still looks the same age.
W. marks the third time that Oliver Stone has looked into the life of a President. He was behind JFK and Nixon, although W. reminded me more of The Queen, if anything. It’s just a select few moments from the man’s life, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of someone who has been the talk of an entire country, who has to make a couple of key decisions at crucial times. It’s a compelling drama even if you have little opinion of the man at its center.
W. works and I enjoyed it at its human level, even if it is all a little too convenient. The film is not a complete criticism of the former President, and it gets credit for that. It would have been easy to take the most controversial president in recent memory and try to take down his image at every point, but the film is smarter than that. It’s not objective, but it’s as close as it could probably get. It has some great performances and impersonations of real people, and as a drama, it works. I recommend giving it a look.