Written by Stanley Weiser
Directed by Oliver Stone
In 2002, President George W. Bush and his administration were seeking strong reasons to invade Iraq. Surrounded by people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice, the President wants to avenge his father in a certain way, seeing the conclusion of Desert Storm as an anti-climax against Sadaam Hussein. Through flashbacks, we follow Bush from his fraternity days at Yale through his constant disappointments to his father, the development of his relationship with Laura, and finally his aspirations to seek higher office in Texas. All of this leads to the beginning of the Iraq War and realization of the military action’s failure and subsequent fallout.
Preceding the release of W. I was excited and anticipating a brutal possible satire of the dismal eight years this man held office. I was deeply disappointed when what I got was a film that had a major identity crisis, attempting to softly mock Bush but confusingly try to explain his flaws through his daddy issues with George Sr. The entire film lacks any sense of empathy for Bush Jr. whom you could reasonably present with mountains of pathos. By the time the movie ended, both when I saw it theatrically and even this viewing, I was incredibly confused about what the hell Oliver Stone was trying to say.
Part of the problem was the timing of the film’s production and release. To come out in the middle of an election in a year in which Bush wasn’t up for re-election and was coming to the end of his second term everything feels pointless. If we were a decade out from the events and reflecting, then the film could have been something of importance. Alternatively, the movie could be made right in the midst of roll out of the Iraq War and act as a condemnation. So we have a picture that lacks a strong thesis statement about its subject.
I was reminded of cringe-inducing call out references in Star Wars films, particularly the cameos of C3-PO and R2-D2. They felt like low bar pandering with the purpose of giving someone merely a point of recognition than any real insight or analysis. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser plays the same card, weaving infamous speech excerpts into private conversations Bush has with his staff. We even have a scene where Bush infamously chokes on a pretzel which led to the strange bruise on his face. Why is this scene in the film? I have no idea. It’s never referenced again and doesn’t tie into any other themes. This sort of thing happens again and again throughout the two-hour runtime, leaving me wondering what I was supposed to walk away from the movie thinking about Bush.
If you recall, this was the height of the Jon Stewart led Daily Show and the rise of Stephen Colbert, made possible by the ludicrous incompetence of the Bush Jr. regime in Washington. I believe myself and many audience members wanted to see that sort of humor translated into a pseudo-realistic farce. Allegedly Olver Stone deleted a scene that featured Bush riding a flying carpet and dropping bombs on Baghdad. This lets us know Stone was thinking along the same lines at one point. I can’t understand what made him change gears and opt for such a meaningless film, given the opportunity to make a picture about a deeply divisive time in America.
Regarding cinema on American politics, W. feels like a weakening of the subgenre possibly due to featuring real-world figures. The best pictures I’ve seen during this marathon came mostly in the 1960s and chose to deal with fictional characters, though some reference real-life analogs. By talking about real people while the war was still ongoing, I wonder if Stone was too frightened to make something with more teeth on it. I don’t know if we’ll have ever a chance to revisit the Bush Jr presidency in such a way, with the Trump admin essentially overshadowing the prior Republican executive for the foreseeable future.