Oliver Stone's "W."

October 17, 2008

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Josh Brolin stars as W.

It was ironic to read this week, that Jerome Kerviel, the so-called rogue trader who brought the major French bank Societe General to its knees with a 5 billion euro fraud, was inspired to enter the world of investment banking from watching Oliver Stone's epiphany, WALL STREET. We all know that famous line from the film, “Greed is good.” Just look where it's gotten us! 

In his new film, “W.,” a new, gentler Oliver Stone, emerges after the over-the-top histrionics of his “Nixon” and “J.F.K.”  If nothing else, ‘W.,” is NOT the film that you would expect, conditioned as we are from watching the accumulated inarticulate snippets of the eight years of wisdom we've come to expect from our sitting president. After watching the two-hours of “W.,” only one thought stays in your mind: we've been living in a nightmare. Only now, after having elected the guy to the highest office, just before we are to awake from our dream, we have that horrifying sensation of falling. Except that, on waking up, that falling is real. 

What Oliver Stone does in “W.” is a psychographic riff on the character of the “decider”. Stone summarizes the character of George W. Bush like this: “This guy who is basically a bum becomes president of the United States.” 

“W.” is best seen as a series of character sketches; it by no means strives to be a complete biography, and skips over many essential historical details like the contested second term election. It focuses, instead, on two key elements: the psychological tension between George Bush, the patrician father, and W., whom Dad calls “Junior.” 

Junior is a screw up. Whatever he gets in life – into college and out of jail after a night of drunken antics – is through Dad's intercession or family connections. There's Yale, and a first job on an oil rig, ostensibly to “toughen” him up which Dad arranges but Junior quits in a huff.  Life is a booze-fueled ride through Texas until he meets Laura, his future wife, and then finds God to help him conquer alcohol. From there, it's a fast pitch to owning a baseball team, the Texas governorship, and a fast ride to the Presidency. Dad is always there, disapproving, because he prefers the older (and smarter) Jeb, the governor of Florida. 

There's not much that Junior can get right, and the father-son conflict comes to a head when a drunken W. storms into his parents' house and threatens to take on Dad, “mano to mano." 

The film cuts between these biographical developments and the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. There, the cast of characters includes Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and the ever-present Karl Rove. In the much-hyped film, a lot of attention has been given to the performance of Josh Brolin as George W. Bush, and it's true that at times he hits the intonations and body language just right – but not always. I think the one truly brilliant performance in the film is that of Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Cheney. His performance is understated – the seemingly self-effacing backstage manipulator, not too shy to kiss W.'s behind – but at the same time ever-willing to twist the facts to achieve the neocon goal of establishing the American empire as the controller of oil in the Middle East. Dreyfuss's performance is downright creepy. 

“W.” the film is oddly sympathetic, and although it will not reveal anything particularly new to anyone with even a mild political engagement, seeing all of the little bits and pieces assembled into a plausible narrative makes you want to go and volunteer for duty at the White House, scrubbing it with bleach – after the present occupants leave, of course.

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.