Oliver Stone's "W."
Special to The History Place
“I tried to be fair, balanced, and compassionate,” Director Oliver Stone told a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times shortly before the October 17th release of W.,” his bio-movie of President George W. Bush. I, for one, feel Stone, who cast Josh Brolin in the lead, has succeeded. Many on both sides of the political spectrum will disagree.
Bush haters will focus on his malapropisms, his early days of boozing and carousing, and the personal aspects of his decision to invade Iraq. They will credit Stone with depicting Bush as the blundering fool they think he is. Bush’s shrinking fan club to the right will despise Stone for those same scenes, which are many and graphic. But both sides will be wrong.
Stone, whose fondness for initials in movie titles and his willingness to fictionalize history were both evident in JFK, really does bring balance to this biography. Brolin’s Bush is boozy, brawling, and a sloppy eater to boot. But even in those early, wild years, he is a hard guy for me to dislike. When Bush finally comes to Jesus and stops drinking, his reformation is absolutely believable. Again, Bush haters on the left will laugh when Bush and his minister cum alcohol counselor (played by a corpulent Stacey Keach) pray together for the strength to stay off the Jack Daniels. But if they look a little silly to us agnostics and atheists, they never seem insincere. And if we have slid so far down the cynical slopes greased by Saturday Night Live and Letterman that we can’t respect a genuine conversion at face value, then shame on us, not them.
W. shifts back and forth between a chronicle of Bush’s ascent from a mediocre college career at Yale to his decision to make a run for the White House, and the days and weeks leading up to the fateful 2003 Iraqi incursion. While the former episodes are dominated by the clash between Bush the Elder (James Cromwell) and his eldest child, the latter is peopled by a strong cast, including Scott Glenn as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Dreyfuss as VP Dick Cheney.
This latter aspect of the film depicts the struggle between the politicos and the intelligence agencies over what to claim about Saddam Hussein’s supposed “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” It also dramatizes the efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell to dissuade the administration from its decision to bring down the dictator. In a pivotal scene, the cabinet seems incapable of concluding whether WMDs really exist or not. Powell appears to have stymied the stampede to Baghdad, when Cheney takes control of the meeting.
Posturing in front of a giant electronic world map, he explains what the war is really all about. You guessed it: Oil.
In a tour de force lecture, Cheney tells his colleagues what every one knows and no one really wants to admit. “We have five percent of the world’s population and we use 25 percent of the world’s resources,” he begins. Does anyone in the room imagine that the rest of the world will help us out, when we run short? That’s a rhetorical question. Cheney then gives his answer. America needs to control the Middle East.
But what is our exit strategy? -- Powell retorts.
Here’s the clincher. There is no exit strategy, Cheney replies, looking him in the eye. “We’re never leaving.”
After this lesson in “real politics,” the Vice, as Bush calls him, yields the floor to his boss. Says Bush, let’s remember it’s also all about democracy and freedom. Now let’s have a prayer to close down this cabinet meeting. Monday morning, we go into Iraq.
Stone wouldn’t be Stone without some self-indulgence. His most blatant act of poetic license is a series of short scenes in which Bush imagines himself in the Texas Rangers outfield. His part-ownership and management of that team, which in nine years made him a multi-millionaire in his own right before running for Texas governor, reflected a life-long love of the game. He tells his father he sometimes wanders alone in the outfield to center himself.
In the film’s closing scene, he’s back in that outfield, but not for reflection. He’s wearing his glove. A ball is slugged high and deep. He stares up into the night sky. He’s blinded by the stadium lights. He can’t see the ball. The ball seems to have vanished.
Is Stone suggesting that Bush and his presidency have lost their way? Is Bush, as baffled outfielder, symbolic of Bush as baffled chief executive, wondering what, if anything, his eight years in the White House mean?
I don’t know. All I can tell you is that the confused fellow, standing there wondering what happened to the baseball he hoped to catch, depriving the other team of a homerun, is not a man I was able to hate or even strongly dislike at the end of Stone’s two-and-a-half-hour epic.
Rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.