4 November 2008


Following on from 1991’s ‘JFK’, and 1995’s ‘Nixon’, it was inevitable that Oliver Stone might turn his hand to the story of a president who could effortlessly match the aforementioned in terms of scandal and notoriety. Stone stated that with ‘W’, he wished to emulate the achievements of Stephen Frear’s 2006 film, ‘The Queen’, to track “seminal events in Bush’s life.” An admirable quest, but whereas his two previous presidential biopics came over twenty years after the events had passed, ‘W’ appears in the final thickets of Bush’s presidency and lame duck period, instantly placing question marks over the validity and detachment between director and subject matter.

Stone doesn’t help himself by making Brolin’s lines as Bush what Juno’s were to youth vernacular – peppered with constant “cockamamie” and “nukes”, his speeches are laboured from the offset, coming across as a hybrid between Jon Culshaw and the sniggering Beavis and Butthead. He’s not the only character portrayed as a caricature – Thandie Newton’s transformation into Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is aesthetically brilliant (perhaps the film’s sole chance at an Oscar nod for Best Makeup), but the tension in keeping Condie’s trademark bullfrog pout extends to the rest of her body, which twitches like a Thunderbird puppet. It doesn’t take long for the notorious Bush-isms to start spewing forth either – “they misunderestimated me”, “is our children learning?” – Stanley Weiser’s script reads like a sixth form parody. It’s manipulative, estimating conversations from behind closed doors, but recycling genuine quotations in an attempt to seek low-blow laughs.

The film’s portrayal of Bush fails to weigh up – as a headstrong Yale graduate, he’s full of bravado, keeping his cool in grotesque frat boy initiation ceremonies (which are obvious in their redolence of the torture images from Guantanamo Bay), and as a young man, he’s cocky, self-assured and adaptable, taking control of his father’s successful presidential campaign. However, following his conversion into a devout Christian, Stone paints him as a bumbling fool. It’s difficult to know what Stone wants to achieve – sympathy for the young Bush, always his father’s second favourite son? Sneering laughter, as President Dubya chokes on a pretzel, and has to have Cheney explain the statistical possibility of biological warfare using a sandwich as a metaphor? Or learned and retrospective disgust, as Bush and his Cabinet decide to go to war over his gut feeling that there are WMDs in Iraq?

As students, we’re told not to just re-narrate stories, but to evaluate and offer new interpretations. Perhaps singed by the negative reception which plagued his acknowledgement of conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination in ‘JFK’, Stone fails to enlighten the audience to anything they wouldn’t already know, or challenge their preconceptions of Bush, despite promising that “it will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors”. The film’s discussion of the Patriot Act and the “axis of evil” goes too in-depth for any casual punters looking for Michael Moore-style sensationalism, but it’s far too much of a chronological superficial parody for close observers of the two Bush terms. The very fact that not only is Bush still alive, but he’s still (by the string of his teeth) in the position he’s being lampooned for makes the line between fact and artistic license difficult to blur – to what extent should the scripts be based on real life? Despite the film’s timely release, it offers no new perspective on the election process, its sole links being a mention of everyone’s favourite paradigm, Joe Voter, and George Sr. smirking as he approves the “naughty” smearing of Democrat rival Dukakis. There’s no intelligible end to the film, which only manages to point out the idiocy and contradictions of the Bush regime by being equally idiotic itself.


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