There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s biopic W. in which President George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) receives the news in a Cabinet meeting that there are no WMDs in Iraq, listens to Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) sputter excuses, and tells them all to dig deeper: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice … You can’t get fooled again.” This is, of course, one of the most legendary “Bushisms,” but in life it was blithered at a press conference, and its transplant to a Cabinet meeting doesn’t jibe with what people who’ve met Bush say: that in private he’s in control of his (simpleminded) language, that it’s only before the public and press that he has trouble synthesizing talking points that other people have written for him and that he doesn’t necessarily believe. Stone and the screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, don’t seem to understand the difference between public and private discourse, which is one reason W. skates along the surface. There’s no idiomatic dialogue — it’s all talking points.
It’s also surprisingly sympathetic, insofar as W. doesn’t emerge as an easy, smirking liar who has never, as Norman Mailer said, felt a twinge of doubt about his qualifications to be president of the United States. Stone’s Bush has a mediocre mind and a sense of entitlement; he doesn’t grow much in stature. But he means well. The real Bush might even take heart from the portrait. Given the devastated economy, Afghanistan on the brink of chaos, and the lowest popularity rating of any president in modern history, he could seize on the left-wing Stone’s assessment as proof of his noble aims: “See? Even Oliver Stone says I believe in the spread of democracy!” You take your solace where you can find it.
Let’s give Stone points for trying to get into the head of W. As in his biopics of Nixon and Alexander the Great, the director comes not to mock but to dramatize the nexus of great power and personality. Stone’s focus is Oedipal: Bush’s downfall, pegged here to Iraq, is firmly rooted in the tension with his dad. It’s an accepted thesis now, and consistent with an astonishingly prescient essay by Pete Hamill written before Bush was inaugurated, in which Hamill predicted that “the new President Bush will seize on some slight, real or imagined, to finish off Saddam Hussein” and “thus force his father to admire him and get a boost in the public opinion polls … A son in rivalry with a father can be a very dangerous man.” No misunderestimation there.
The movie begins with that move to finish off Saddam, then leaps back in time to show W. in college, getting sprung from jail by his father (James Cromwell) after a drunken frathouse binge. “Poppy” Bush repeatedly calls “Junior” a disappointment and draws unfavorable contrasts with his younger, Phi Beta Kappa brother, Jeb. Allegedly, Jeb is in the movie — an actor is named in the credits — but I don’t recall seeing him, so there’s no juicy dialogue between the good and bad sons. And while Cromwell has a fine patrician presence, the film’s notion of George H.W. is one-dimensional. You’d never know from this fount of integrity that he was a Lee Atwater–schooled attack dog on the stump — and a stumblebum.
W. isn’t gripping enough as drama or witty enough as satire, and its flashback structure seems less freewheeling than arbitrary. Weiser has read the right books (we get Cheney’s one-percent doctrine, Rumsfeld’s insistence on a small fighting force, the yellowcake uranium scam), but the writing is so thin that the cast is stuck doing nightclub impersonations. Sure, it’s fun to see Dreyfuss clench his jaw and look at once forthright and shifty, and Thandie Newton play Condi Rice as an adenoidal, robotic yes-woman. But Toby Jones is a diminutive Karl Rove with no evident relish for his job. Stone and Weiser aren’t confident enough to speculate about Laura Bush behind the scenes. After a vivid introduction (She’s a Democrat! She believes in education!), the fresh-faced Elizabeth Banks becomes a cipher.
Brolin at least holds the screen. Early on, he’s shown cramming food into his mouth and swilling beer, and he has the buoyancy of the young Dennis Quaid. After Bush loses a race for Congress and has a born-again experience, the actor suggests a man reeling in search of a self. The W. who ascends to the presidency is more engaged than commonly believed, eager to surpass his father and angry when he thinks he’s out of the loop. It’s Stone’s and Weiser’s fault that outside of his supposed revelation of God, he never gets a chance to show us W. in extremis. The election of 2000 happens offscreen, and so does 9/11 and My Pet Goat and whatever happened in the hours in which the president of the United States was incommunicado.
It’s hard to know what went wrong with W. Maybe Stone wants to change his image as a rabble-rouser and show his critics he has become more reflective and responsible. (He had his own daddy issues, reportedly.) But his greatest attribute — and I say this as someone whose least favorite film of all time is Natural Born Killers — has always been a lusty, blowhard showmanship. In the midst of these tumultuous times, in the midst of this tumultuous election, Stone has delivered his most tepid film.