The public doesn't like movies that touch on politics or the war on terror. This was proven again by the poor box-office performance of Oliver Stone's new movie, a biopic about President Bush that had an advance reputation as a hatchet job. Having seen the film this weekend (in a relatively crowded art-house theater), I think that the advertising isn't doing justice to W. On the other hand, the actual film is bound to be a tough sell.
W. strikes me as two films with nearly contradictory agendas that have been cut together rather awkwardly, so that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The first film is the one that gets advertised. It deals with the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, punctuated with many of the President's famous malapropism. This part of the film is clearly intended for laughs. Details like playing the old "Robin Hood" TV show theme as the Bush cabinet wanders around the President's ranch are clearly meant to mock the leaders. These scenes detail W's effort to present a case for invasion. Bush wants to invade because he has a grudge against Saddam and, as it develops, he blames his father's failure to depose the dictator for his defeat in the 1992 election. But you can't tell that to the United Nations, so we get a narrative of the buildup of the "yellowcake" story, along with a chilling presentation by Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney of the "real" motive for the invasion: to occupy Iraq permanently in order to control its oil. All of this will be very familiar material for most people, and that familiarity may have kept people away from the theater.
Intercut with these "road to war" scenes is a more conventional biopic detailing W's rise from drunken frat-boy to presidential candidate. This part of the film is more like Stone's Nixon biopic in that it strives for a semi-sympathetic understanding of someone with dreadful political views. This part cleverly wins sympathy toward the young W. by portraying him as smarter, in one respect, than we might expect. Hazed by his Yale frat, W. and his fellow pledges must recite as many names of actual frat members as they can remember while sitting in ice water up to their skivvies and getting doused with alcohol from all directions. A fellow pledge can only haltingly recall a handful of names, but W. wins over the crowd with a letter-perfect litany of the brothers and their nicknames. But he is basically a hellraiser, and we soon see him in jail for disruptive behavior following a football game. This introduces the main element of the biopic, W's resentful relationship toward his cold father, who clearly favors younger brother Jeb and considers W. to be a shiftless loser. W. rebels against the pressure by bouncing from job to job, uncertain to a very late point of what he really wants to do in life. In the 70s he runs for Congress and is beaten soundly by a populist Democrat who tars W. as an elitist. This provokes W. to vow not to be "out-Texased" ever again, but it sets his career back and him back to drinking until he has a near-death religious experience while jogging off a hangover in 1986. His religious experience is refined during his time in a church-based sobriety program. But his most potent impulse is a desire to top his father and brother. He urges Dad to use the "Willie Horton" ads and accept more help from church leaders during the 1988 campaign, but the old man stays aloof. He's humiliated for his dad when Clinton beats him in 1992, but the experience also confirms his sense that his father is weak. He defies Dad by running for governor of Texas in the same year Jeb first runs for governor of Florida, and bristles when Dad is more disappointed by Jeb losing (he won on his second try) than pleased by W. winning. The father-son conflict dominates these episodes, and W. keeps your sympathy because you never quite understand if Dad favors Jeb because W. has been a loser or if some deeper family issue (Mom also favors Jeb) drove W. in that direction originally. In any event, winning power and doing something Dad couldn't (deposing Saddam) represent W's redemption, whatever the consequences for the country. That thesis is supposed to hold the two halves of the film together. Even at the end, we're supposed to retain some sympathy for him when he shows outrage and feelings of betrayal when the U.S. fails to find WMD in Iraq, as if he'd been played by Rumsfeld and Cheney (who promptly throws Rumsfeld under the bus) instead of playing along.
I don't mean to hint that an Oliver Stone movie approves of W's conduct, but he and his screenwriter make a sincere attempt to present the president as a human being instead of the cartoon cretin or monster many people might have expected. Playing the part, Josh Brolin advances his standing among our leading newer actors. In the past year and a half I've seen him as the scuzzy doctor in Planet Terror, the stubborn hunter-turned-prey in No Country For Old Men, and here vanishing into the part so completely that I hardly recognized him. His imitation of Bush isn't perfect -- some of his features don't really match -- but the voice is close enough and the performance is a thorough self-transformation that makes up for the physical imperfections. The cast is almost uniformly good, with special honors due to Dreyfuss as Cheney and James Cromwell as a better elder Bush than I suspected. He doesn't come close to the real man's voice, but the resemblance is closer than I originally believed and his sense of the character helps suspend your disbelief.
In a season when Beverly Hills Chihuahua dominates the box office, W. was probably doomed. It's been noted already that moviegoers are uninterested in anything to do with the war. The most recent reminder before this was just last week, when Body of Lies flopped despite its DiCaprio-Crowe teamup. This indifference (or outright hostility) to war and terror themes seems odd when Fahrenheit 911, a political documentary, was a genuine blockbuster just four years ago. The polls will tell you that the public hasn't become more reactionary, so something else must be going on -- most likely simple news fatigue. This is a year for escapism at the movies, even if some of the most popular escapist fare has terroristic subtexts. I know I feel terror at the thought of ever sitting through Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but that aside, if you're looking for an escape from escapism. W. is an interesting way to spend a couple of hours. Honesty, however, requires me to note that there is nothing so epically scaled about this production that you'd miss it by waiting for the DVD.