I can’t remember if I’ve brought this up before or not, but I fuckin hate Bush. Worst thing to happen to this country including our version of Godzilla looking like an iguana. I don’t think I’m the only one who’d rather not think about him unnecessarily. So when I heard Oliver Stone was already doing an all-star George W. Bush movie it seemed like a joke. It honestly sounded to me like a fictional movie they would refer to in some TV show like STUDIO 60 or one of those. A character would mention that they’re trying out for the part of so-and-so in Oliver Stone’s George Bush biography. And I would think come on, Oliver Stone would never make a movie like that.
I mean, there’s the whole too soon factor. Are we really ready for a more humanized portrait of the moronic shitbag sonofabitch who’s about to exit the White House leaving behind 2 (two) wars with no clear objectives, a Constitution that has been devalued by the government intentionally and openly violating it without any consequences, the people sorely divided for intentional political purposes, and (the cherry on top) the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression? Should we really give a shit what makes this asshole tick? Shouldn’t that be a fun hobby for historians to play many, many years from now when we’ve managed to get some of the mess cleaned up?
And also isn’t it gonna be goofy to see all these actors imitating current political figures?
And there’s a too late argument to be made too. If this is an expose shouldn’t it have come out in 2004? And is there really any new information? Or anybody who still needs convincing?
Well, you know the formula for a review like this so you know my answer. It’s like after the passing of the “Give Him the Power To Unilaterally Declare War – You Know, Just As a Bargaining Chip” resolution of 2002, you can see where it’s going: it turns out I liked this movie. I thought it was a stupid idea but then I liked it.
It’s not an expose. There’s no revelatory information except that James Brolin’s boy Josh has turned out to be one of our finest actors. Can you believe that? I knew of the guy existing, being an actual living being. I knew he was in that obnoxious kidde movie “The Goonies,” but I forgot what he even looked like until NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Then I knew he grew into a good tough guy character actor and enjoyed him in a couple other movies such as AMERICAN GANGSTER. But who knew he could do this? He talks like Bush, and delivers scripted dialogue in his voice, but doesn’t come across as a joke (except in the sense of “man, what a joke of a president this bastard is”). More incredibly he looks just like Bush. Maybe this is more of a testament to the execution of the makeup and the camera angles, but holy shit, I couldn’t even figure out how they were doing it. Many times it’s like you’re looking at the real guy. The smirk, the squint – pure movie magic.
And the biggest trick of all: Brolin makes Bush semi-likable. Just amazing what technology can do these days, isn’t it? The script focuses on Bush’s adult life as an alcoholic fuckup, and how this somehow led to being America’s Fuckup-in-Chief. It’s not making any excuses or justifying what he’s done, but it shows him as this guy unhappy with being the son of a senator, never happy with any of the jobs he takes on, always drinking, always disappointing his dad. “Poppy” expects Jeb (a very good young lookalike only shown in one scene) to be successful in politics, and gets kind of upset when George decides to run for governor in the same year and gets it instead of Jeb. He spends his life fighting against George H.W., trying to prove himself to him, trying to do better than him. In fact that’s why it’s called W. – there is a moment when Bush Sr., trying to be respectul, calls him “Junior” and then corrects himself and says “W.” He wants to be W., not Junior. Separate from his father.
He seems to have finally conquered Poppy when he gets the second term dad never got, and (he thinks) finishes the war dad left unfinished. But of course the ironic Twilight Zone style ending is that he fucks those things up so impossibly bad that he has basically left a big shit-stain across the Bush name forever and made the whole world despise him and everyone he’s related to and just want to tar and feather them and then high five each other and sit down around a campfire and sing songs of celebration and give each other gifts. Oh well, at least he quit drinking, that’s in the plus column I guess.
The scenes from his presidency mostly focus on Iraq – the coining of the term “Axis of Evil,” the plans to ignore the UN vote, being happy with a low level of troops, being unclear on an exit strategy, approving torture. Bush is not shown as sinister, really. He’s just a good ol’ boy Republican dipshit who wants to spread freedom around the world and is too stupid to consider the actual consequences of his actions and too trusting of Cheney and the other people who are giving him advice, and whose motives are left to the imagination. You could never fit all the fuckups and outrages of the Bush presidency into a movie that lasted less than two or three months, so they wisely didn’t try to. This is more of a character piece and they chose Iraq as the event that defined him more than his dirty elections or reading “My Pet Goat” on 9-11. They do work in a few of the famous Bushisms (“I’m the decider,” “misunderestimate,” “fool me once,” etc.) but usually not in the original context, and that gets distracting. But it feels less like a political tract than one of those Milos Forman biopics like MAN ON THE MOON or THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. (By the way, Stacy Keach looks alot like Larry Flynt these days. He plays a reverend in the movie.)
The supporting cast is pretty good. Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney is most important. He’s kind of a hybrid between an impression of Cheney and standard issue Dreyfuss. It makes for a scary villain – eerily low key, doesn’t say much, but shows with his face and voice that he would rather be shitting on your face than having to lower himself to trying to explain things to you. He manipulates Bush’s mind over sandwiches in the same way Palpatine messed with Anakin’s head at the opera in Star Wars part 3. (Don’t lie, you fuckin know what I’m talking about, I know you own that movie.) Jeffrey Wright does an interpretation of Colin Powell, not an an impression. He’s portrayed as the voice of reason who’s ignored and roped into ruining his image forever with that bullshit at the U.N. (“Best speech of his career,” Cheney or Rove or somebody says.)
Scott Glenn as Rumsefeld is a little too kind, I think. Not nearly addle-brained or condescending enough, but at least recognizable. But there’s one truly terrible performance in the movie and that’s Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice. She is the only person in the movie who thinks she’s supposed to be doing some cartoonish SNL parody to make you laugh at the character’s funny voice. For the first half of the movie you only hear her talk once, so you’re not too worried about it. But later she starts getting lines, and you wonder how the hell she got this performance past Oliver Stone. She’s so out of place it’s like if the Temptations went up on stage all wearing matching suits, but for some reason Melvin Franklin was naked, covered in mud and wearing a real bird’s nest on his head. I mean what the fuck Melvin Franklin, you’re throwing off the whole vibe here.
Just like her counterpart, Newton did an incompetent job and clearly should’ve been fired. Since Condoleeza got promoted to Secretary of State, maybe Thandie will win an Oscar. And then we’ll see her out shopping for shoes during a hurricane.
So it’s not flawless (wouldn’t that be ironic if there was a flawless movie about George Bush?) and I don’t think it says a whole lot that you didn’t already think of (if anything). But I think it paints a pretty believable picture of the improbable series of events that got us into this godforsaken mess. It’s funny at times and it’s sad but mostly it’s a dire warning for us to smarten the hell up. In a movie you can like a guy for his attitude, for being kind of a funny asshole or idiot, for accomplishing ridiculous things, for having funny lines, for knowing how to look cool pounding Jack Daniel’s. But it’s time to stop valuing those things in real life politics. This is a guy of no substance – he got jobs because of his family connection, he didn’t do a good job at those jobs, he got good at memorizing prepackaged answers to questions instead of having actually ideas and thoughts. He got in the White House by being “the guy you want to have a beer with” and even on that level he’s a phony because (as he points out in the movie – finally, somebody besides me) he has to drink O’Doul’s. You might think a George W. Bush could never happen again, but he lowered the bar and raised our tolerance, and already we have a vice presidential candidate who’s even more obvious about being a phony and an idiot, and although it doesn’t look like she’ll get in she has not received the wholesale rejection that a semi-reasonable country would’ve given her.
In this campaign it seems like some of the old Karl Rove style tricks have started to backfire, so there are signs that we’re learning our lesson and might be a little more thoughtful about this shit in the future. I hope. I liked ‘W.’ but how ’bout if we make sure there’s no chance of Oliver Stone’s PALIN?
January 21st, 2010 at 4:50 pm
Great review Vern. Just saw this today and I mostly agreed with your assessment. I was disappointed Stone left his usual stylistic flourishes at home for this one though. Without them the movie had a bland HBO movie feel some of the time. I also thought Stone’s Nixon movie was way more entertaining than this one but that isn’t necessarily his fault. Nixon is just a more entertaining subject. Speaking of the Nixon movie…well…uh…my birthday next week on Monday…and…oh nevermind. Forget I said anything.