‘W’ Warrants no response

By David Orlikoff

On Jan. 20, 2009-less than three months from now-President George W. Bush will exit the Oval Office. His term will have lasted eight years, though not since 2004 has he had more than a 50 percent approval rating. He is the least popular president in history, this much is clear. What is unclear is what director Oliver Stone is trying to accomplish with his latest film, W., about the incumbent president.

The plot is a pieced-together grab bag of sometimes-important moments in Bush’s life, from his college years to the present.

The first half of this 131-minute film builds up a classical narrative of Bush’s character as he degenerates into alcoholism and despair, culminating in his absolution as a born-again Christian. This section-like the rest of the film-is juxtaposed with scenes of Bush in the White House. One such scene from the first half shows Bush leading a prayer at the conclusion of his cabinet meeting-a gesture indicative of his spiritual growth and relevant to the progression shown through his earlier life. Jumping through time and space, his character arc is a clear narrative construction, with dubious bearing on reality.

Still, the story of Bush as redeemed through Jesus is just about the most interesting thing available in this film. What a pity it is when that story resolves itself, and Stone continues to chug along for another 75 minutes.

The only other semi-cogent storyline in the film is Bush’s struggle to gain his father’s approval. The problem here is that in the absence of any foundation work into what their father-son relationship is, the audience has no bearing or build-up for the plethora of confrontations to capitalize on. The vast majority of scenes depicting these two men together show Bush Sr.’s deep, soul-crushing disappointment toward his son. It can’t be that Bush is that much of a screw-up to make a viable narrative impossible.

Josh Brolin gives a commendable effort to showcase the humanity of the President. Too bad it is virtually impossible to take him seriously when every other scene is a reenactment of random events for what appears to be the sole purpose of reproducing infamous “Bushisms.” Perhaps it is this fact that leads some to view the film as particularly offensive or inflammatory toward the President. What other purpose could Stone have for including a scene of Bush choking on a pretzel than to deride him? W. obviously attempts to make fun of Bush, though it does a far worse job than any “MAD TV”, let alone “Saturday Night Live” parody. Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice is an even weirder farce. Her rendition of the Secretary of State is less offensive than it is bizarre. Still, despite all of this, the purpose of the film cannot be to attack Bush. This is evidenced by the last scene, an obvious literal metaphor acknowledging the fact that his term is not yet up, and it is too early to make any final conclusions. So what then is Stone trying to accomplish?

Stone isn’t creative enough to develop a working narrative or interesting characters. If that was something he was capable of doing, he should have directed a true fiction film, and not a biopic. Any scene that isn’t a fabrication meant to elucidate us into the psyche of Bush, as completely dominated by his father, is taken directly from common knowledge, the facts and rumors alike. The film’s official website lists Wikipedia as a source. They could have at least done a little more research, so that after $10 and more than two hours the audience might walk away knowing something more than when they sat down. The non-committal ending already precludes this film from appealing to later generations; Stone had a responsibility to interest contemporary audiences, and he failed.

What then could his purpose be? Taken from the official plot synopsis, “George W. Bush is one of the most controversial public figures in recent memory.” Shock value? Is that all this film is worth? Make incendiary remarks and force a reaction? In a word, yes. And it’s not even good at that. As it stands, the scant Bush supporters will have little to complain about. This film warrants no response.