Review: Oliver Stone’s “W”


How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene 1

In a late scene in Oliver Stone’s W., the latest in Stone’s presidential portraits (having some interesting parallels, but more contrasts, with his previous biopic Nixon), George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), lies in bed with his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), and laments to her about how no one can understand the sacrifices and pressures he must contend with daily. Not too long after his triumphant “Mission Accomplished” media show has been snowed under by the intensifying debacle of the war in Iraq, he recalls the advice of his father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) that he should have “stayed out of the barrel,” that is, not take on matters and responsibilities beyond his ability. But as Stone’s film argues incessantly, such a thing is impossible for its protagonist. The most interesting aspect of W.’s approach to its subject is how it views Bush as a character out of classical Greek tragedy (with allusions, of course, to the Prince Hal/King Henry of Shakespeare’s plays), who as much as he tries, is unable to escape his preordained destiny. The succession of the young Bush’s failed exploits – the construction job, owning the Texas Rangers, etc. – as well as the drinking and debauchery he indulges in, is no more and no less than a desperate desire to avoid the family business of power, influence, and authority that dogs his every step, but is as impossible to shake as his own shadow.

With W., Oliver Stone has created a work that will probably anger people at all points of the political spectrum, as well as confuse and confound most audiences, who will go in expecting one kind of film and be presented with quite another. Neither an outraged j’accuse that will please the Michael Moore crowd nor the sort of flag-waving hagiographic study akin to Stone’s World Trade Center (a film so timidly reverent it may as well have been a Republican Party commercial), W. is instead a surprisingly rich and complex psychological portrait that puts the tortured father-son relationship of W. and H.W. front and center, positing it as the Rosetta Stone with which one can understand the source of the disaster that was (and is) the Bush administration. By no means a perfect or even entirely coherent film – there is a palpable tension between presenting a rounded human portrait and the caricature that creeps in almost despite itself – W. nevertheless is never less than fascinating, containing two great performances at its core: Josh Brolin as the junior Bush and James Cromwell as the senior.
Brolin, especially, is quite mesmerizing, navigating what must have been a rather daunting tightrope walk of a performance nearly flawlessly. His Bush is a creature of nervous energy, always in motion, like a shark that will die if it stops moving. In many scenes, he is either eating or drinking something, feeding an emptiness at his core that can never be fulfilled. He lacks introspection in the extreme, a character trait that reaches its logical climax in the long painful pauses, hesitations, and stalling that constitutes his response to a reporter’s query about mistakes he has made. And even though the script too often calls on him to repeat the most mocked of Bush’s famous malapropisms and coinages – “I’m the decider!”, “misunderestimate”, “Is our children learning?”, “Fool me once … you won’t get fooled again” – Brolin deftly weaves all these elements in a portrayal that gains poignancy as it progresses. He admirably avoids Saturday Night Live-style parody to render key moments of Bush’s biography (most notably his born-again Christian conversion) with astute sensitivity.
In sharp contrast to the phantasmagoric near-surrealism of Nixon, Oliver Stone in W. presents his material with an almost fastidious conventionality, structuring his film in the tried-and-true present/flashback/present biopic style. However, this proves to be a smart approach, allowing Stone to (mostly) stay out of his own way. Of course, as Stone is not exactly the most subtle of filmmakers, he sometimes can’t help underlining certain points, just in case we don’t quite get it – for example, the playing of the “Robin Hood” theme on the soundtrack as Bush begins his great misadventure in Iraq; and a rather ill-advised dream sequence late in the film, in which the Iraq quagmire becomes, much like his drunken crashing of cars in his youth, yet another example of Junior screwing things up yet again. But Stone more or less adheres closely to a straightforward style, which brings into vivid relief Bush’s quest to get through to his cold, distant father, a conflict and rivalry that eventually pulls the entire world into this Oedipal drama. And while its value as a historically accurate work is dubious at best (it credits W., instead of Lee Atwater, with the blatantly racist Willie Horton ad that helped his father ride into the White House, while the 2000 election and Hurricane Katrina rates nary a mention), as a dramatic evocation of the concentration (and corruption) of power in the hands of a few, it is extremely credible and compelling, and more than a little disturbing. The film ends on a great metaphor representing where Bush took himself and the country (and by extension, the world), made crystal clear by the current dire state of our economic system. We’re all waiting for that pitch that will probably never come.