The veteran filmmaker locates
the simple, unvarnished soul of George W. Bush.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
When you first caught wind that Oliver Stone was teaming
with his scriptwriter on Wall Street,
Stanley Weiser, for a biopic on America’s worst (and current) president you
thought you’d get slapstick no matter what the bone wry Stone said to the
press; something like Stone’s own zany Natural
Born Killers, or Alexander. So to
get jutting jawed Josh Brolin to narrow his squint and scrunch his face and
tighten his arms to portray a W. from his wet hot summer college frat days
through to the wrongheaded Iraq
conflict and make the entire production a sober, surprisingly serious chamber
piece is a stunner. That Stone carries it off so much better than he did during
Nixon is doubly amazing.
Directed by Oliver
Written by Stanley Weiser.
With Josh Brolin,
Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Richard Dreyfuss and Jeffrey
For Stone, Weiser and Brolin, Bush was a boy born to
privilege who could get into Skull & Bones and Ivy League schools and get
out of troubles with pregnant girlfriends and police through the auspices of
“Poppy” Bush Sr. (James Cromwell; more on him later). That Texan noble pose
becomes the essence of W.’s presidency, that Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Donald
Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) could get him in and
make him king. That they couldn’t get George out of trouble? That’s for W.2.
Conflicted relationships form the film. More like his loud-mouthed
mom (Ellen Burstyn) than his father, finding his way to God and AA (courtesy a
Baptist preacher played by Stacy Keach) in a manner that turns him in a
“Decider,” the once booze-obsessed Bush is a man torn ultimately apart by being
a just a guy with simple tastes better suited to running a baseball league than
True to his word, Stone does not take sides or turn W. buffoonish. Stone allows his version
of history to transpire: Bush prodding Tony Blair into war or leading his
cabinet through a green field just to get lost; Bush missing the point or a
question or the lessons learned by his father’s elegant presidency. Or did he
miss the point? Bush 2 was the one that got a chance at a second term, not Bush
1. That that fact sickens his father – that theirs is relationship that rarely
surpassed its necessary beginnings – is what truly drives W. toward somber
gracefulness. That’s due to scowling, beady eyed, even crying Cromwell’s
bird-like prowess. He’s cool, not cold; good, not grand; and perfectly picayune
as the man that would be king had his son not done it twice and somewhat
dumber. When Bush 1 rants to Bush 2 about messing up the legacy, it’s
Shakespearian tragedy closer to the epic rapid-fire J.F.K. than Nixon. But
its tone is dark and somber like Nixon,
not rapier smart, hurriedly acted or vividly paced like J.F.K..
There are strange, even silly elements to be found: the way
Brolin swigs his beers as Bushie (whether alcoholic or O’Douls), or the manner
in which Dreyfuss (subtly, just once) mangles his teeth and jaw in twitching,
Cheney fashion, like a talking, still breathing death mask. Most particular to
this is Thandie Newton who plays Condi Rice as if she was an Asian woman
channeling Lily Tomlin’s on ringy-dingy phone operator. Jeffrey Wright as Colin
Powell? Wright uses a grumbling barrel toned voice and stiff body language as
if portraying Gregory Peck portraying Clark Gable in a WWII propaganda short. Newton and Wright go
weird – which is almost okay, as nobody else seems to do so.
This isn’t a completist version of the Bush tale (no real 9/11 or Katrina) nor
is it meant to truly satirize Bush’s eight year run or the news or the wonks.
It isn’t perfect as it seems to drag when Brolin and Elizabeth Banks (as Laura
Bush) hit the screen in fine, if not dryly romantic, fashion. But Stone and
Weiser are able-bodied and sober on their antsy beleaguered mission to find the
simple soul of a simple man, and their star follows along chillingly close
without seeming to make light (or mere impression) of the situation. If only
the real Bush had made it all this easy.