click to enlarge
In the interest of full disclosure, let's just go ahead and get it out on the table right now: I can't stand W.
I'm not talking about director Oliver Stone's new film “W.” That's actually pretty good — funny, poignant and interesting. No, I'm talking about the man; the swaggering, brush-cutting ex-fratboy who currently occupies the Oval Office. Though there were maybe three days in September 2001 when I backed the guy, his wrongheaded arrogance on everything from Iraq to torture to stem cell research over the last eight years has brought me to the point where I want to push my TV down the back steps every time his twang-talking monkey face appears on the screen.
I say all this to let you know what a strange experience it was to walk out of “W.” actually feeling kinda sorry for the guy.
In a nutshell, “W.” follows George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), from his college years at Yale through the invasion of Iraq. Along the way, you get all the greatest hits: his first meeting with Laura Welch, soon to be Laura Bush; his years as a frat legacy; his defeat in his first congressional race in Texas; his introduction to ol' turdblossom, Karl Rove (Toby Jones); his years drilling dry wells as a would-be Texas oil-man; his stint as owner of a professional baseball team; his alcoholism and the big moment when he found Jesus; carrier landing in a crotch-enhanced flight suit and the big speech before the “mission accomplished” banner; the infamous pretzel choke. (Oddly, or perhaps wisely, one thing Stone refrains from showing us is Bush on 9/11 — though the ripples from that day permeate the whole film.)
Most importantly for W. and how his presidency turned out, however, are the often-strained scenes with his father and namesake, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell). Unlike his gregarious, hard-drinking screw-up of a son, George the First is a classic New England aristocrat, stoic and proper; obsessed with appearances. A cold fish who comes across as an even colder father, he clearly believes that pulling strings and opening political doors is an ample substitute for love. Even worse, it's clear that G.H.W. and wife Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) have put their money on George's brother Jeb — so much so that when George W. announces to them that he's planning on running for Texas governor, his father and mother rail at him to put it off, saying that he would steal the focus from his brother, who was then gearing up to run for governor of Florida. After George actually pulls off the impossible, overcoming (with Rove's help) foot-in-mouth syndrome to win the governor's chair, there's a genuinely soul-crushing moment when G.H.W. congratulates his son by handing him a written memorandum.
All this is important because, by the time George W. wins the White House, he's a man torn in two by the neglected son inside himself. Though his imperial ambitions are stoked by the neo-conservative nincompoops he has drawn about himself, “W.” makes it all too clear that the real reason George W. went into Iraq is because he's desperate to prove himself to his father — to “finish the job there,” mistakenly believing (over the objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell) that the decision to stop at the Iraq border during Gulf War One was born of cowardice, not prudence.
Though it's easy to make George W. Bush into a symbol that stands for everything that's wrong with America these days, the fact is that he's just a very, very flawed man who happened to wind up in a position of almost unimaginable power. Yes, he's wholly and completely blind to those flaws (including the fact that he obviously thinks he's the smartest guy in any room, even though he probably doesn't have what it takes to run an off ramp Burger King). Yes, he surrounded himself with a coven of truly evil men. Yes, he bought his own Marlboro-Man-with-a-nuke-in-his-saddlebag hype and alienated the rest of the world in the process. But Oliver Stone seems to say that failed policies, reckless hubris and an inability to speak in coherent sentences don't make a man the Devil.
The saddest thing in all this — beyond having our global credibility and financial security flushed down the toilet in the last eight years — is that the Limbaugh-listening masses who wouldn't buy a ticket for “W.” if you put a shotgun in their back will likely never see this film. It's a pity, because they might learn a lot about the man they've championed, and why America is in the mess we're in.