W. is the third film that director Oliver Stone has based around the USA presidency (JFK and Nixon are his previous efforts). It is also a curiously restrained film considering Stone’s past tendency to make controversial films containing an excessive use of film style, Natural Born Killers and Platoon being two notable examples. Despite the occasional use of heavily ironic music, W. is not the all out ridiculing attack on Bush that many people may assume it to be. Looking at the range and depth of source material that the film was based upon, it appears to be an incredibly well researched film. It examines Bush as a rebellious young man who despite his highly privileged background couldn’t hold down a job until the age of 40 when he turned his life around to eventually become the president of the free world. While W. does heavily focus on the era between October 2001 and March 2003 when America went to war with Iraq, Stone’s primary interest lies in the complex relationship that Bush had with his father.
Josh Brolin does a remarkable job portraying Bush and like Frank Langella as Nixon in Frost/Nixon, he has been cast not for his physical resemblance but for his ability to perfectly capture the facial gestures, expressions and speech patterns. It’s a portrait of Bush that is actually somewhat sympathetic – to a point. Bush is portrayed as a naive man with a very moralistic and simplistic view of the world, easily persuaded by the real villains of the film – Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton). The one member of the Bush Administration’s inner sanctum who comes off reasonably unscathed is Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) who is the ignored voice of reason throughout the film, arguing against the Iraq War on both moral and militarily strategic grounds. Likewise, George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell) is depicted as a far more rational and analytical man than his son and the best scenes in W. depict the dynamic between the two men, with W. Bush initially trying to win his father’s approval and later feeling obliged to finish what he felt his father started.
Ultimately there is something a little unsatisfying about W. because it is a story that has not finished in the real world yet – Bush may have left the Whitehouse but what he did there still resonates globally. That is perhaps an unfair criticism but the film does feel incomplete and premature. Nevertheless, it is a careful documentation of the economic and political motivations that went into starting the Iraq War. Supporters of Bush are unlikely to glean anything of interest from W. because if they haven’t been able to examine his presidency critically by now, then an Oliver Stone film is unlikely to make any difference. However W. is an interesting attempt to humanise and make sense of a man who seemed so unlikely to become President but somehow did.