W. – Paul Cantelon
Original Review by Clark Douglas
Oliver Stone’s “W.” is a fascinating mess of a movie. There are a lot of things to complain about here. One could argue that the elements of satire and tragedy don’t blend particularly well. One could accurately note that the psychology employed in the film is speculative and simplistic. One could also marvel at the fact that the film never really addresses such important moments as September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, focusing instead to center only on the Iraq War and a series of personal moments. One could say that the film has been made too soon. All of these complaints are fair, and yet this is a resonant and compelling film.
Though everything is not quite presented in chronological order, Stone essentially begins with George’s college years and takes us up to about the mid-point of his presidency. Stone is the director who gave us the absorbing yet historically suspect films “JFK” and “Nixon”, and I expected him to do the same with this film. Surprisingly, he does not. This is Stone’s most cautious film, perhaps because he is dealing with a President who is still in office. Or, perhaps it is because the target he has chosen is too easy. Not many people like President Bush these days, and taking cheap shots at him would not make Stone an unpopular man. Perhaps to avoid coming across as a bully, Stone provides us with a thoughtful and well-balanced look at this man’s life and presidency. The theories about Bush’s motivation may or may not be true, but almost all of the events depicted here have been well-documented and are historically honest.
The early years are not portrayed in a flattering manner. Bush’s is presented as something of an irresponsible alcoholic who couldn’t hold a job and didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life. He suffers from a lack of direction, and feels a certain measure of bitter inferiority to his increasingly powerful father and his well-regarded brother Jeb. There is a scene in which Bush Sr. (the always-excellent James Cromwell) reprimands his son. “I don’t want to hear about any more of this behavior, Junior. Who do you think you are, a Kennedy? You’re a Bush. Act like one.”
Two key events change Dubya’s life. First, he meets Laura, a left-leaning librarian with a passion for education. She is a kind woman who makes George feel good about himself. She is supportive of his decisions at all times, whether he’s running for local politics or running a baseball team. The one thing she cannot abide is his drinking, which he eventually gives up cold turkey. Second, Bush finds God. He was raised in a religious family (and in America, what political family is not “religious?”), but did not really come to grips with his faith until late in life. His religion and his marriage save him, and Bush begins to find success. The film follows his time with the Texas Rangers, his reasonably successful run as Governor, and that brief time at the beginning of his Presidency when he managed to attain the respect of much of the American public.
The film’s most fascinating scenes are those that slowly but surely lead to the downfall of President Bush and his administration. These are the scenes in which Bush and his key advisors sit around a table, discussing politics. At one moment, Bush, Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfus), Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and others examine the possibility of invading Iraq. Cheney is wholeheartedly in favor of the plan. “The American public loved Afghanistan,” he claims. “They’re hungry for more.” Someone in the room asks what the exit strategy in Iraq would be. Cheney smiles ominously. “There is no exit strategy. We stay.” Rove notes that Bush may not be re-elected without the Iraq war, while Rumsfeld and Rice echo their support as well. Powell serves as the one voice of concern. He doesn’t feel that a war in Iraq is necessary, he doesn’t think it will succeed, he is deeply concerned about the risks of ignoring the United Nations, and he feels that the consequences will be far greater than the gains. His warnings are drowned out by everyone else in the room, and Powell eventually caves in and agrees to co-operate with whatever the President wants.
We find ourselves mentally filling in a lot of gaps in this movie. I suspect that this is what Stone intends. He does not show us how September 11th changed the country. He does not offer a portrayal of the moment in which Cheney declared that the war would be over within six months. He doesn’t show us the resignations of Powell and Rumsfeld. And so on, and so on. We know about these things. Stone is more concerned with the build-up to these events, the motivation behind them. His conclusions are perhaps credible, but partially unfounded. Stone believes that Bush’s presidency has been largely informed by his feeling of inadequacy in comparison to his father.
There is a scene early in the film just after the Gulf War has ended. We see news footage of reporters and analysts praising Bush’s strategic approach to winning in Iraq. Bush Sr. speaks privately to Powell and Cheney, congratulating them on a job well-done and informing them, “This is the proudest day of my life.” Fast-forward a bit, and we see Bill Clinton defeating Bush Sr. in the election. Bush Sr. is crushed. After comforting his father for a bit, George W. says, “You know, you really should have gone further in Iraq. Then this wouldn’t have happened.” His father looks wounded. “What are you saying? I won that war!” George W. frowns. “Sure you did, Poppy.” While this psychological theory is dramatically credible, it remains a theory, and a rather speculative one at that.
There are more hits than misses among the cast. Josh Brolin offers a sympathetic and complex portrayal of George W. Bush (during the later years anyway; early on he seems like a bit of a jerk), and would perhaps even seem Shakespearean if he were able to express himself a little better. The performance avoids falling into SNL-style parody, which is perhaps more difficult to achieve than it sounds. Richard Dreyfus most assuredly does not offer a sympathetic portrayal of Cheney, making “Vice” a genuinely terrifying guy. Stacey Keach has two excellent scenes as a minister (a composite figure representing several spiritual leaders in Bush’s life). Jeffrey Wright is simply superb as Colin Powell, and James Cromwell brings a great deal of dignity and intelligence to the role of George H. W. Bush. I also liked Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush. The failures: Scott Glenn never registers as Rumsfeld, Thandie Newton struggles in her attempt at impersonating Rice, and Ioan Gruffudd is an unconvincing Tony Blair.
The original score is provided by Paul Cantelon, who earlier this year provided a lovely effort for “The Other Boleyn Girl”. His contribution here is a bit less notable, as he essentially plays second banana to a variety of songs. The one area where Stone actually pushes a little too hard is with the soundtrack. Tunes such as “What a Wonderful World”, “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and others are employed in a rather satirical manner, which feels cornball more often than not. Cantelon’s selections, on the other hand, are more often than not quite sincere. He scores some of the gentler scenes in the film with some lovely piano selections, including a waltz piece that ranks as one of the more memorable moments. Other cues rely on gentle acoustic guitar, a small measure of strings, etc. It’s a pretty spare and low-key score, but an effective one. The soundtrack album, on Lion’s Gate Records, features five selections from Cantelon’s score, amounting to just over 12 minutes of excellent music, while the accompanying song selections are all generally pretty good, especially if you are a fan of country or Southern folk/rock – you can’t go wrong with Roy Orbison, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, Freddy Fender, Gene Autry and Bob Dylan. The separate score release provides a much fuller and compelling overview of Cantelon’s work, and is well worth seeking out.
I have conflicted feelings about “W.” On the one hand, I greatly wish that it had been made a decade later, and that it were a lot longer. This material is so incredibly compelling; the 131-minute running time felt like a half-hour. There are a lot of things that could have been added to this film. I watched the movie just hours after seeing Colin Powell endorse Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama for President. Powell’s primary motivation seemed to be his concern with the direction of the Republican party in recent years. Selections from that interview could have been a perfect conclusion for a character whose quiet frustration is one of the more moving points of the film.
On the other hand, I think the film succeeds in spite of itself. It is an inspirational success story with a dark twist, and it works tremendously as a piece of thought-provoking filmmaking. There is a certain measure of humor in the film (some of which, yes, comes from Bush’s frequent mangling of the English language), but ultimately, it plays as a tragedy. It is the story of a man who decided to reform himself, find some measure of success, and be a good man. He is also a man so driven to prove himself to his father and those around him, that he dives into a position that he isn’t quite prepared to handle, and the messy results are displayed for the entire American public. Honestly, I felt bad for the man, but not quite as bad as I feel for the country in the wake of his presidency. “W.” is a flawed film, but not one that can be easily dismissed.
Buy the W. soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- REGULAR RELEASE
- War Introduction (0:36)
- The Whiffenpoof Song (performed by The Collegians Male Chorus) (2:22)
- Claudette (performed by Roy Orbison) (2:34)
- Chattahoochee (performed by Alan Jackson) (3:57)
- Shotgun Boogie (performed by Hank Thompson) (2:34)
- Bayou (3:33)
- Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (performed by Willie Nelson) (3:28)
- Wasted Days and Wasted Nights (performed by Freddy Fender) (2:46)
- Delta Waltz (2:25)
- Robin Hood (performed by Dick James with Stephen James and His Chums) (2:31)
- Deep in the Heart of Texas (performed by Gene Autry) (1:50)
- The Differencemaker (2:41)
- What A Wonderful World (performed by Eddy Arnold) (2:30)
- Yellow Rose Of Texas (performed by Mitch Miller) (3:04)
- War (3:06)
- I’m Winging My Way Back Home (performed by The Blackwood Brothers) (2:26)
- With God on Our Side (performed by Bob Dylan) (7:06)
- SCORE RELEASE
- Bayou (3:33)
- Delta Waltz (2:25)
- The Call (3:04)
- The Differencemaker (2:41)
- Winging My Way Back Home (2:31)
- Protest (1:19)
- Damascus Road (2:06)
- Proposal (1:14)
- Defeated (0:57)
- Cancan Cowboy (1:17)
- Delta Waltz [Piano] (3:11)
- The Unraveling (4:10)
- The Nightmare (1:50)
- War (6:11)
Regular Release Running Time: 49 minutes 37 seconds
Score Running Time: 36 minutes 29 seconds
Lions Gate Records 20021 (2008)