Having already tackled the political career of Richard Nixon and the assassination of John F Kennedy, Oliver Stone turns his attention to another American President: the current occupant of the Oval Office, George W. Bush.
The resulting film is a curious beast; neither documentary nor satire, it takes the form of a fairly conventional biopic and one wonders at the point of it all. The lack ofpolemic is surprising given the man behind the camera, if anything it’s an oddly sympathetic portrait. Stone’s George W is the Accidental President, a man who came to power riding on the considerable political clout carried by his family name, his appeal to the Christian right and his determination to show his ‘poppy’ he could make something of himself.
The film covers the months leading up to the Iraq war, while continually hopping back to the past, depicting W’s frat boy days, his string of unsuccessful jobs, his escalating problem with drink and his first forays into politics (where, after an early defeat, he vows never to be “out-Texaned or out-Christianed again”). But the main thrust of the drama comes from W’s relationship with his father. As George Sr, James Cromwell spends much of the film sighing and frowning with disapproval, frequently bailing his son out and ensuring his path through life is a smooth one.
While Stone, not altogether surprisingly, provides a lengthy scene in which Dick Cheney outlines the strategic importance of Iraq in terms of fuel resources and concludes chillingly that there will be no exit strategy (“We stay,” he says simply, when the question is put to him) this side of the film is thinner than expected; Stone seems far more interested in W’s desire to prove himself in his father’s eyes. When Bush Sr gives his son a gift to mark his inauguration as governor, the gesture is tainted by the fact he could not voice his pride in person, could only say it in a note.
Quite often W. comes across as a Big Brother ‘best bits’ montage of George W’s time in office. There’s a pretzel choking scenes and all of his more memorable syntactical accidents (“Is our children learning?”) and even a chipper cameo from a chap I think was supposed to be Tony Blair it’s a shame Michael Sheen was busy. But the key image in Stone’s film, the one he returns to again and again, is one of his own creation. He shows George W standing in a baseball field as the sound of applause and cheering erupts around him. The seats, however, are all empty.
Much of what pleasure this film offers comes from watching the supporting cast impersonating recognisable political figures: Thandie Newton with her Condoleezza flick-ups and tight little smile; Richard Dreyfuss, appropriately oily as Dick Cheney; and a hard-edged Ellen Burstyn in Barbara Bush’s jumbo-sized pearls and leisure slacks. Amusing as these turns are, there’s a whiff of Rory Bremner skit to the whole thing. As W, Josh Brolin walks a fine line but, for the most part, humanises him (though he looks far too old in the frat-boy flashbacks). The whole film in fact walks a fine line, unsure whether to attack or stand back; it ends up hovering uneasily in the middle.
This is illustrated in a scene where George W visits horrifically wounded soldiers in hospital. This provides a real jolt because, tellingly, until that point, Iraq has been a red blob on a map and the war had consisted of statistics and sound-bites. Indeed, what Stone chooses to omit is as interesting as what he includes. September 11 and the circumstances of George W’s election are notable for their absence.
The main issue is one of distance, or the lack of it. With George W still in office its too early for the kind of film Stone has made; the time just seems wrong for such fence-sitting.