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Misunderestimated

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Recently on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked former British Prime Minister Tony Blair about his relationship with President George W. Bush. Together, Blair and Bush led their two countries into the disastrous Iraq War, a foreign policy miscalculation that destroyed Blair's popularity and ultimately ushered him from his long tenure at 10 Downing Street. The invasion of Iraq was defended in 2003 as a preemptive strike against an unstable tyrant who possessed both links to Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. Neither excuse proved to be true, and since both were based on faulty and even falsified American intelligence reports, one might think Blair would harbor some resentment toward his American counterpart. But with apparent sincerity, Blair told Stewart that he really liked Bush. I admit being astonished. The two men seem very different. Blair is liberal, urbane, eloquent and outgoing. Bush is reactionary, provincial, inarticulate and secretive. I know, however, that others have found the private Bush likable. So I looked forward to director Oliver Stone's Bush 'biography," W. , in hopes of discovering the charm Bush purportedly displays when the cameras aren't rolling. In this hope, I was disappointed.

Written by Stanley Weiser, W. is an imagined psychological portrait based on the public record, unconfirmed rumors and calculated speculation. Given Stone's well-documented hostility toward Republican politics, he depicts George Bush with more sympathy than those of us who voted against Bush twice might expect. The picture ping-pongs between scenes in Bush's first term as president and episodes of various kinds in the 35 years leading up to the disputed 2000 election.

The picture suggests Bush is a man of surprising and admirable self-discipline. He is never depicted as a subtle or remotely profound thinker. Instead, he is portrayed as someone with an impressive capacity for memorization, a skill he puts to use to command the talking points of his campaigns. The film dramatizes his heavy drinking in the 1970s and alludes to rumored drug use. Even when the twentysomething and thirtysomething Bush is over-indulging in alcohol, however, he maintains an impressive physical fitness routine. Perhaps most important, when he realizes his substance indulgences are threatening his ambitions, he cuts them out cold turkey and apparently without relapse. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore depicted Bush as a lazy, insincere faker. Stone clearly submits that such a characterization sells Bush short and renders the president's fundamentalist religious conversion as genuine and life-changing.

This is not to say W. doesn't come down hard on Bush. Those of us who have followed Bush's presidency closely have read of his tormented relationship with his father. As depicted here, Junior (as his father calls him) is the ne'er-do-well son Senior can barely abide. Junior gets into Yale as a legacy and into Harvard's M.B.A. program because of his father's connections. Senior treats his son with naked contempt but keeps bailing him out of trouble when Junior is forever quitting jobs, landing in jail, going AWOL from the Air National Guard or getting a working-class girl pregnant, the latter a charge I had not heretofore encountered. Interestingly, W. does not repeat Moore's charges that Senior's Saudi friends saved Junior's oil company from bankruptcy or that Senior's friends provided Junior the capital to buy the Texas Rangers and thereby turn himself into a millionaire.

Stone's primary thesis is that Junior's entire life can only be understood in the context of his desperate need to trump his father's accomplishments. Junior goes into politics because that's the arena in which Senior has made his mark. Junior determines to go after Saddam Hussein because Senior ended the first Gulf War with Saddam still in power. Such motives, Stone argues, render Junior susceptible to the schemes of people like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who are able to manipulate him to further their own agendas. They fashion their advice to serve the needs of his ego and never alert him to the possibility of negative consequences. Among those in his inner circle of presidential advisors, only Colin Powell provides sage counsel, and Powell's advice is rejected at every turn.

Stone's portrait of Bush is no doubt correct in some part. But because much of his character is revealed in private scenes between Junior and Senior, or between Junior and his wife Laura, without other witnesses, I remain unconvinced that I have been shown how to understand the actions of a man whom scholars may well judge as the worst president in our history. I don't like that Stone has put some of Bush's most notorious instances of public malapropism into his mouth in private settings. And I left the picture frustrated that I never saw the private appeal people say Bush has. We watch him courting Laura, but we haven't a clue why she's quickly smitten. This is a considerable script deficiency.

That said, I commend Stone for the cast he assembled. Josh Brolin as the title character is superb. Without ever descending to caricature, he captures the posture, body language, facial expressions and verbal cadences of the man we know from eight years of public appearances. Richard Dreyfuss is eerily accurate as Cheney. Elizabeth Banks captures Laura's look precisely, although the script doesn't provide her much character definition. Toby Jones is much smaller than Rove, but he delivers the Machiavellian glee. Thandie Newton gets Condi Rice's appearance and voice precisely right but plays the Secretary of State as so vapid we ache for it to be inaccurate. James Crowell exudes such patrician hauteur as Senior, we yearn for a glimpse of the congenial warmth for which he is famous. Jeffrey Wright looks little like Colin Powell, but his passionate advocacy for caution and restraint rings entirely true of the man who this week so eloquently endorsed Barack Obama.

In the end, W. is a picture that neither Bush fans nor foes will much admire. But there is one telling scene that will lead those who dislike Bush to nod their heads vigorously. In debating whether or not to invade Iraq, Powell argues that Saddam is contained and that George Kennan's containment policy ultimately won the Cold War. Bush snaps contemptuously that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. And so succinctly, W. encapsulates the critical failing of Bush's leadership. He is a president interested in drama and glory but one ignorant about and hostile to the development of policies by which to govern. The film also points at Rove's chilling notion that Americans vote for Bush because he reminds them of themselves, his extensive weaknesses transformed into mysterious strengths. In times when elite meant superior, Americans wanted a president like Roosevelt or Eisenhower or Kennedy " one better educated and more articulate than they were. In Bush, they chose a man they'd feeling comfortable having a beer with. In making such a choice, is it any wonder global warming went unaddressed, the Middle East was provoked into chaos and the economy collapsed?

Vice-president Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, left) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones, behind) advise George Bush (Josh Brolin) in Oliver Stone's W. - 2008 LIONSGATE FILMS
  • 2008 Lionsgate films
  • Vice-president Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, left) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones, behind) advise George Bush (Josh Brolin) in Oliver Stone's W.

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