Asked what he thought his place in history would be, George W. Bush famously replied, "In history? In history, we'll all be dead." That's awfully close to Henry Ford's famous line, "History is bunk," albeit with an added whiff of mortality. Dead or alive, Bush has now been subjected to what we'll just have to call a first draft of history, Oliver Stone's absorbing but not quite mesmerizing W. Jumping the gun by a good 20 years (let's hope they're good years), Stone is attempting to historicize a man who's not only still alive, he's alive and kicking. And that may explain the element of caution that runs through the movie, caution bordering on wimpiness. Or is it hero worship? Stone doesn't just pull punches, he embraces Bush as a good ol' boy who at least has the courage of his convictions. Vaguely celebratory, W. is Bush's PT-109.
It's also his Henry V and his Richard III, his Citizen Kane and his...oh, I don't know, Lion King. That's what you get when you hurry history along, an interpretative mix-and-match. W. isn't without a satirical point of view, especially with regard to Bush's advisers, each of them forced to play the role of courtier to an emperor wearing very few clothes. But the overall feeling is sympathy, if not respect, if not outright admiration for a guy who, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, raised some rebellious hell, then pulled his life together, found God and toppled Saddam, thereby avenging his father, who'd stopped short of Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War. Or was Bush the Younger trying to topple Bush the Elder, too? Stone and scriptwriter Stanley Weiser cook up an Oedipal conflict that supposedly explains everything.
How would you like it if you were given your father's name and sent to the same school he went to? One could spend a lifetime trying to get out of that shadow. And one of the nice things about Josh Brolin's performance is that he finds the sad notes underneath all that Texas bonhomie. What Brolin's been asked to do here would drive most actors out of their minds. He has to impersonate Bush without doing a Bush impersonation, and he has to suggest hidden depths that appear to be hidden from Bush himself. Brolin's Bush isn't stupid, just not prone to reflection. But that can still make the character seem more like a caricature at times. Without stooping to "Lil' Bush" levels, there's the suggestion that Bush never quite grew up. Well into his life, he was still called Junior by his father, perhaps still is.
The movie flashes backward and forward between Bush's young adulthood and the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, thereby skipping over such minor events as the Florida recount, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. And the question on Stone's mind seems to be, How did a guy like this wind up president of the United States? We're given a clue, early on, when Bush, newly arrived at Yale, escapes a fraternity hazing by reeling off the names of all the frat's members, complete with personally coined nicknames. Obviously, he has the personal touch, or so we're asked to believe. And he still has it, decades later, only now we're not in some frat-house basement, we're in the Oval Office. The movie opens with a long brainstorming session among the Bush team that finally arrives at the phrase "Axis of Evil" - not bad for a day's work.
They're a rather motley crew, all the more so given that the various actors are variously successful at limning their likenesses. Perhaps the most successful is Richard Dreyfuss as the Iago behind the throne, Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss avoids seeming too scary, which only makes Cheney all the more scary. Toby Jones, who recently brought Truman Capote back to life, gives Karl Rove a certain troll-like charm. And Jeffrey Wright will surely get a thank-you note from Colin Powell for making him seem like someone who would never give that WMD speech at the U.N. Scott Glenn doesn't have a bead on what it is about Donald Rumsfeld that drives people up the wall. And Thandie Newton is a puppet whose strings need untangling as Condoleezza Rice. Overall, the scenes in the War Room have a fly-on-the-wall appeal, but they'd be more enjoyable if Stone had given them a Strangelovian twist, let the wackiness ensue.
But that's not what he's up to. He's trying to understand and explain Bush - what drives him, what makes him tick, how the world looks from where he's sitting. And for some reason that means taking Bush largely at his own word. God really did tell him to run for president, apparently, just as God told him to go to war. And all involved thought there were weapons of mass destruction over there, or said they thought there were, or neglected to protest loudly enough when everybody else said they thought there were. When the president learns that there aren't any WMDs after all, he throws a royal hissy fit that future historians may want to take with a grain of salt, even though Stone gives it to us salt-free. And make no mistake about it, Bush is the man in charge here. "Keep your ego in check," he tells a chastened Cheney at one point.
Stone, too, has kept his ego in check. "Frankly, I tried not to put myself in this movie," he recently told the LA Weekly, "because Bush is a sensitive issue for many Americans, and I don't want to insult or hurt Bush." When I read that, my first thought was "Well, why the hell not?" It made a certain perverse sense when Stone turned Richard Nixon into the stuff of tragedy in Nixon. The man contained multitudes, and so did the movie. But George Bush, by his own admission, isn't all that complex a guy. In fact, the movie suggests that if he'd gotten the baseball commissioner job he lusted after while back in Texas, these last eight years might have been a lot different. That's history playing one of its little jokes on us. Alas, W. isn't in on the joke. I never thought I'd say this, but this time Oliver Stone may not have gone far enough.