Oliver Stone's "W." Backfires

Josh Brolin stars in Lionsgate Films' W. - 2008
Lionsgate Films
This column was written by Tom Hoopes.
The movie W., despite the worst intentions of its makers, succeeds in making George W. Bush more likeable. Reviewers keep remarking on the strange phenomenon. They hated Bush going in - and kind of liked the guy when they came out.

That the movie doesn't intend you to like George W. Bush is obvious from the cheap shots it revels in. You can tell a director (in this case Oliver Stone) and a writer (Stanley Weiser) want you to dislike a lead character if they have him:

  • Chew in your face. For much of the movie, Stone stages dialogue such that Bush is chewing and talking with food in his mouth - hard to watch in person; revolting on a 20-foot screen.
  • Deliver lines from the toilet. Stone stages a scene such that Bush is handling toilet paper while sitting on a toilet preposterously close to his bed, where Laura converses with him.
  • Arrange the Willie Horton commercial. The ad about the early release of a rapist helped defeat Dukakis, and conventional media wisdom considers it the biggest sin of the 1988 campaign. The movie makes Dubya the perpetrator of the ad.
  • Be a friend of cartoon villains. Stone insultingly makes Tommy Franks and the other military leaders who lead the Iraq invasion into callously dim redneck stereotypes, people who chew tobacco while briefing the president.

    How can skilled filmmakers who clearly want to make Bush look bad end up making him likeable? Maybe it's just by comparison to the other characters in the movie, whom they clearly hate much more.

  • Stone and Weiser really hate Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. The excellent Toby Jones plays Rove like a Herblock caricature of him, and Richard Dreyfuss plays Dick Cheney the way Tilda Swinton played the White Witch in Narnia: as a soulless being who will do whatever it takes to make sure it's always winter but never Christmas.
  • But Stone and Weiser really really hate Condoleezza Rice. The actress Thandie Newton is truly awful in this role. She was much better (and looked much more like Condoleezza Rice) in Crash and Pursuit of Happyness. Her performance here insults more than imitates, like a middle-school boy mocking his teacher. Maybe the filmmakers hate Condi with the kind of hatred Democrats have been directing at Sarah Palin. They object that she's not behaving the way a woman (a black woman, no less!) is supposed to behave.
  • Stone and Weiser love Colin Powell, but might as well hate him. They couldn't do any more damage to him if they did. In the movie, Powell woodenly predicts everything that will go wrong with Iraq (in words provided by a screenwriter with 20/20 hindsight), then goes ahead and makes the case for invasion to the United Nations anyway.

    But the hatred Stone and Weiser have for those characters isn't enough to explain why Bush seems so likeable in this movie. Here are a few theories.

    Maybe Bush seems likeable because he's a real person. The movie puts him in scenes you can't imagine a movie putting the Clintons in:

  • The tender bedroom scenes. Laura and George are shown in caring, real dialogue in their bedroom. Even when this is meant to ridicule them, it's sweet and endearing. When Laura soothes George by promising to take him to his favorite play, Cats, the audience is supposed to snicker. But we can't help but appreciate her gesture - and we can't imagine the Clintons doing the same thing.
  • The authentic religious expression. The movie makes a couple of half-hearted attempts to be cynical about Bush's religious conversion. But his spiritual counseling by Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach) in the film is far from the self-righteous stereotyping of Christians. Hudd tells Bush that "We're all wounded sinners." Bush looks contrite and earnest. From then on out, it's hard to tut-tut his praying at meetings as we're supposed to.

    (As Bob Dole once told the National Catholic Register, "I think Bush's faith is authentic, and that will be useful to us.")

    Maybe Bush is likeable in the film because it bucks conventional liberal wisdom in a couple of ways that favor him.

  • The film's Bush isn't a "Bush lied, people died" Bush. The movie's W. clearly believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He also clearly had the best of intentions when he ordered the invasion.
  • The film's Bush isn't the too-stubborn-to-correct-course Bush. This is especially clear in the way the film plays the scene when Bush is asked at a press conference to name his biggest mistakes in Iraq. In the movie, you squirm with Bush and feel sorry for him. And you realize, "Hey, a president in wartime with American lives on the line can't glibly answer a question like that."

    Or maybe Bush is more likeable in the movie than the filmmakers intend owing to dramatic flaws in the film itself.

  • It leaves out 9/11. This shows such glaring bias that it's hard for the film to recover from it. Imagine a filmmaker making a movie about FDR's decision to enter World War II - and omitting December 7, 1941. Or imagine a director making a movie about Truman ending the war - and omitting August 6, 1945. Even if the goal is to make this an intimate personal portrayal of the man, you would have to put in 9/11- or at least 9/14, when he visited Ground Zero.
  • W. can't decide whether we're supposed to sneer at Ivy League privilege or Texas down-home idealism. It takes shots at both frat-boy privilege and Southern populism. But by trying to tar Bush with these two different brushes, our dramatists only succeed in making him seem like he was enriched by and transcended both.

    But perhaps the ultimate reason why Bush is so likeable in this movie is that Josh Brolin makes him likeable. His W. is an earnest guy who overcame his partying youth by self-discipline, the steady and tolerant love of a woman, and real faith. He saw his life as part of a larger plan, and invaded Iraq because he thought it was the right thing to do. He's a sincere striver who tries to do right by God, his country, and his family, and is startled and crushed when things don't go the way he hoped.

    That means the movie's real bad guys are all those around the president who, the film suggests, work with duplicitous motives for dishonorable ends they really don't believe in.

    Clearly, Scott McClellan must hate W.

    Finally, perhaps, most infuriating to the Bush Derangement Syndrome sufferers: The film also makes the case for John McCain. Stone's movie carefully makes the argument that all of America was put in danger because Bush was able to get to the presidency with no real experience after political handlers took him over following his failed attempts at various careers. It suggests that Bush has iffy military experience, and the script hurls Cheney's "four deferments" in our face. If the lesson is, "Don't put an Ivy League cushy career-jumping reinvented politician with little or no executive experience in office, and only turn to those with military experience in times of peril," then the way to apply the film's lesson is to vote for John McCain over Barack Obama.
    By Tom Hoopes
    Reprinted with permission from National Review Online