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Stone's W. Neglects Key Elements of Bush Biography

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Feb 16, 2009
Stone's <i>W.</i> Neglects Key Elements of Bush Biography

DVD Release Date:  February 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  October 17, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  131 min.
Director:  Oliver Stone
Actors:  Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Wright, Scott Glenn, Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn

After years spent as one of the Right’s favorite whipping boys, director Oliver Stone parked his anti-establishment views long enough to make World Trade Center. The film was not universally adored, but among conservatives it was rapturously received. Stone’s heroic depiction of two survivors of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001 avoided political critique of George W. Bush and his administration’s war on terrorism, focusing instead on the men trapped in the rubble. It also lacked any conspiracy theories—a trademark of some of Stone’s best-known films.

The filmmaker has now turned his attention to the presidency of George W. Bush in W., written (screenwriter Stanley Weiser also wrote the screenplay for Stone’s Wall Street) well before the completion of Bush’s second term, and rushed into release before the end of his time in office. The perils of such an approach are evident in this entertaining but unresolved account of the life and presidency of George W. Bush.

If there’s a conspiracy theory in W., it has to do with the motive for going to war: Did we wage a war for oil? Yes, we did, the film suggests. The strongest proponent of this view in the movie is Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), who, in a key speech to Bush’s inner circle, says that oil reserves in Iraq and Iran hold the key to the future of the United States as a superpower. Dreyfuss’ Cheney is the film’s most powerful villain, coldly arguing for an expansion of presidential power during wartime. Asked about an exit strategy from Iraq, Cheney declares, ominously, “There is no exit. We stay.”

Karl Rove (Toby Jones) is a villain of a different sort—a political operative who finds a way to finesse Bush’s political weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Rove is central to the film’s view of politics and religion. He tries to persuade Bush the elder to speak in terms that Evangelicals can relate to, but Bush Sr. stands firm, refusing Rove’s efforts to call himself “born again” or to offer any semblance of language Rove might use to convince voters that he’s something other than what he is. Later, Bush Sr. will watch and wonder at his loss to Bill Clinton, who used religious language to court “values voters.”

W. also focuses on the debates within the George W. Bush administration about its response to Sept. 11. Cheney is concerned most of all with the nation’s safety, and with preventing another attack on the country. He explains his “one percent doctrine” (explained in a book of the same name by Bush critic Ron Suskind) to Bush over lunch, using the lettuce in Bush’s sandwich as an example: If there were only a one percent chance that the lettuce had e-coli and would kill him, would Bush still eat the sandwich? No, Bush replies. Neither would most people, Cheney contends. How much more important, then, to prevent even a one-percent chance that nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction fall into the wrong hands.

The film’s most sympathetic character is Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who challenges overconfident Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) at every step during the buildup to the invasion. But the film’s sympathy for Powell disappears when he backs the administration’s case for war.

Beyond the debate about the war, Stone is also interested in what makes George W. Bush tick, and here he leans heavily on a father-son story between Bush and his father. Stone’s film shows the elder Bush disapproving of his son’s rowdy behavior for much of his adult life, and casting a long shadow over the son’s hopes and ambitions.

The acting— especially Josh Brolin’s performance in the title role—is the greatest strength of W. Wright, as Powell, steals every scene he’s in. James Cromwell’s performance as George H.W. Bush displays the gravitas that the son lacks, while Ellen Burstyn has a few revealing moments as Barbara Bush. The film’s only bad performance comes from Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. She gets Rice’s voice down but none of her poise.

If the acting is the film’s greatest strength, its biggest drawback is what it leaves out. It includes no footage of Sept. 11, nor anything about the dismissal of Donald Rumsfeld, the troop surge in Iraq or the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. As Bush Sr. watches the 1992 election returns and wonders why the first Gulf War didn’t carry him to a second term, we hear no mention of the breaking of his “no new taxes” promise made prior to his election in 1988. Also lacking in the film is a real-life spiritual mentor for George W. Bush. Bush has named the Reverend Billy Graham as a pivotal influence in his life—the man who planted a seed of faith within Bush’s heart—but that account has been disputed. Rather than go with one of the competing accounts of who the dominant spiritual influence was upon George W. Bush, the movie settles for a composite figure (Earle Hudd, played by Stacy Keach) who represents various religious leaders in the president’s life.

Although Stone has yet to publish an annotated script for W., as he has with some of his previous films, he claims that the movie is based on fact. Several scenes in the film will be familiar to those who have read the parade of insider-account books written by former administration officials, or by those with access to current administration figures. The trouble with this approach is that without the benefit of the passage of time and the opening up of the central players that comes only after a president has left office, the stories and claims that form the basis of much of W. can be questioned. Are they all true? Are they all vendettas by embittered administration officials who left on poor terms? These are the questions that only time—not a movie made while an administration is still governing—can answer.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; foul language.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Excessive drinking and fraternity hazing; smoking; dancing atop a bar; Bush is shown in bed, hung over.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Laura Bush removes her top and is shown in bra and underwear.
  • Violence/Disturbing Imagery:  War footage includes grisly footage of bombing victims.
  • Religion:  As a younger man, Bush tells a romantic interest that it doesn’t matter whether she’s an Episcopalian or a Baptist; Bush prays and asks his cabinet members to “take a moment” at the close of his cabinet meetings; references to the U.S. being a “Christian nation”; prayer offered in “Jesus’ holy name”; Bush says he appeal to “a higher Father” than his earthly father.