With all the hubbub in Oliver Stone’s W, it might be easy to miss the key line in it. That would be the one delivered by W himself. He’s having a heart-to-heart with the clergyman who is shepherding him through his born-again experience. In a moment of anguish, he bemoans the fact that people just don’t understand the burden of being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth. Specifically, the burden of being a son who was born to party hard who has tried and failed miserably to please a father who equates privilege with personal responsibility. Being bailed out of business, personal, and legal failures by that same father don’t seem to figure into it for W, and so he has neatly substituted father the god for God the Father, the latter being a more forgiving entity.
The film does a neat job of exploring the life and times of its subject, George W. Bush as man whose lack of drive or ambition beyond the vague “something in baseball” becomes the basis of his life’s journey. A Peter Pan with Daddy issues that allow him to become the patsy of people with enough drive and ambition to vault him to a presidency in which he hasn’t quite worked out that he is a figurehead.
He’s the only one. Watching him have lunch with the Vice President is like watching a mongoose being hypnotized by a cobra as Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) starts with e coli and the lettuce on the W’s bologna sandwich, and comes away with the President’s acquiescence. The President comes away with a plateful of the lettuce he has removed from his sandwich. Watching him have a formal meeting in the Oval Office or the Situation Room is to see Cheney lurking in a corner, seeming to gather around himself all the gloom in a square-mile radius, or W taking is place on the sidelines next to Karl Rove in the half-light of a conference table. This after Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) has wondered aloud why a political adviser is sitting in on a strategy meeting involving the pending war with Iraq. This is a W eager to please and to curry favor with the Daddy substitutes who are sly enough to convince him that they are the ones doing the currying.
Stone does not take the glib, sniggering approach here or anywhere else in his film. This is no lampoon, but rather a tragedy with the trappings of farce made manifest as W leads his team of advisers across his ranch in Texas, listening to him while expounding quite seriously on his understanding of war on terror, during which he misses the side road back to civilization, and setting them to wander in the wilderness. Stone gives us a wide shot of them stumbling through the dry grass in search of the right path, brought low by throwing in their lot with a man who can’t find his way around his own property.
The narrative skips back and forth between past and present. Frat hazing at Yale bears the unmistakable foreshadowing of waterboarding and other assorted extreme interrogation methods, giving W an out for not understanding exactly what is involved. Stone also uses this moment to introduce W’s one genius, which is the uncanny ability to remember names, assign cutesy nicknames, and smile a cocky sort of grin no matter what. It garners the admiration of his frat brother and the other assorted pals that fill his alcohol-infused youth. And it fuels the tragedy of why he can’t quite work out why that admiration doesn’t apply in all facets of his life. The favor his father showers on W’s older brother, Jeb, the one who fits the Wasp model of what a good son should be that sends W, metaphorically, into the arms of those who cultivate him. And of course, invading Iraq. Getting even with Saddam for trying to kill his father, doing the old man one better by marching into Baghdad in Gulf War II. All the players are here, done with an eerie verisimilitude. Thandie Newton with her tense whine and tightly coiled flip as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Wright with a palpable sense of honor and of outrage when it becomes clear that the ideologues have won the day, Dreyfuss hunching and sneering indistinguishably from Cheney, Scott Glenn smoothly, condescendingly egocentric behind the aviator glasses as Donald Rumsfeld, and Toby Jones fawning with a sincerity so sublimely faked as Karl Rove that is it a thing of grotesque beauty. They are not exaggerated nor are they caricatured. Stone lets their words, often verbatim transcripts, though transposed into other situations, do the work, along with some nifty and pointed camera angles.
And at the center Josh Brolin as the spiritual twin of W himself. Chewing with his mouth open, swaggering with a sense of arrogance that substitutes for self-assurance, and a desperate, self-aware cluelessness overwhelms him. The recurring motif of father and son squaring off against each other, in reality and in dreams, in actual and in metaphorical blows, becomes the framework on which the film rests. Confrontation and détente more complex than anything of a geopolitical nature, and a complexity that reshapes that geopolitics with its repercussions.
This is an Oliver Stone film, and so conspiracy has its place. Cheney’s speech about the real reason for invading Iraq is an instant classic, particularly with its follow-up question about what the exit strategy with the answer, there is none, a foregone conclusion.
As a character study, W is intriguing, troubling, and a densely visual delight, fraught with Stone’s iconic glimmery, slightly overexposed white lights sharply cutting the shadows of the set and of the unseemly dealings unfolding on the screen. Not having the end of the real George W. Bush’s administration to bookend his film, Stone begins and ends W with the metaphor of baseball. Though in real life, W is no more adept at running a baseball team than running the country, in his imagination he is in an empty stadium listening to the cheers of people who exist only in his head. He is the star, universally loved, with only the crash of reality to break in on the beautiful fantasy. And there Stone leaves us, just before the break. The import of that final image left to the imagination of the viewer.