Care about the presidential election? Then you seriously have to watch W.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Vice-President Joe Biden told the crowd at an Ohio rally last weekend. “And we know how it ends.” He was referring, of course, to the prospect of electing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who promise a return to the policies of George W. Bush. If you need a reminder of what exactly those were, check out Oliver Stone’s controversial 2008 biopic W. all month long on Sundance Channel. It’s a movie you probably haven’t seen — but you should.
Stone rushed the movie into theaters while the 43rd president was still in office; it was shot in the summer of ’08 and released in October, mere weeks before the election of Barack Obama. The prevailing critical and popular response at the time was, to borrow a phrase from another President, “There he goes again!” W. was dismissed as yet another attempt by conspiracy theorist Stone to stir up trouble — like he did with his previous political flicks JFK and NIXON. The film barely earned back its modest $25 million budget and had vanished from theaters before Bush’s second term had ended.
That’s a shame, because when you look at it four years later, W. stands on its own cinematic and political merits. Foremost among these is the surprisingly nuanced performance by Josh Brolin in the title role. It’s hard to watch anybody play Dubya without thinking of Will Ferrell’s dead-on impression of him as a bumbling idiot, but the NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN veteran locates the scared little kid hiding just beneath the puffed-up surface. (Ironically, Brolin hosted Saturday Night Live to promote W. but was overshadowed by another performer — vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose meet-up with impersonator Tina Fey drew record ratings.)
Written by Stanley Weiser, who’d previously worked on WALL STREET with Stone, W. focuses primarily on the president’s disastrous foreign policy, particularly the use of 9/11 as an excuse for the no-exit-strategy invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While VP Dick Cheney (slyly embodied by the famously liberal Richard Dreyfuss) distracted the chief exec with his own crackpot conspiracy theories — al-Qaeda was in bed with Saddam! — real-life Gordon Gekkos let their greed run wild, driving the nation’s economy to the brink of collapse.
Together, Stone and Brolin paint an indelible portrait of Bush as an incurious, overgrown frat boy (he approves the use of waterboarding at Gitmo because it reminds him of his Ivy League hazing days). Desperate to please his father — sympathetically portrayed by James Cromwell — he swears off alcohol in favor of an aggressively born-again faith that embarrasses his more modest dad and leads to a dangerous black-and-white worldview.
Granted, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney are very different men, but you may be surprised watching W. how much they have in common. Like Bush 43, Romney was — in the immortal words of the late Texas satirist Molly Ivins — born on third base and thought he hit a triple. Can a person like that ever empathize with the average American? To paraphrase W. himself: Fool us once, shame on us. We can’t get fooled again.
Photo credit: Lionsgate/WtheFilm.com