Try as we might to be objective, I believe that it’s impossible to view a film through any lens other than that of your own understanding. I think that realizing and admitting this is vitally important to having truthful conversations about movies of any caliber. Films about real life figures only compound the issue, as they require us to consciously bring our outside life into the screening room. With that in mind I am going to offer up some information about myself that will hopefully give you a better idea of where I am coming from in regards to my thoughts on this film. On Facebook, in the about me section, I’ve chosen to define my personal political views as “liberal to a fault” and my religious views are summed up thusly: “No, thank you, I’m doing fine.” What does that mean in regards to Oliver Stone’s W.? Primarily, that I was really looking forward to a knock-down, take no prisoners approach to mocking the titular President. In the heat of the current political climate I was hoping to see Stone take the gloves off and stick it to the far right. Instead of getting my rocks off to a leftist revenge fantasy (how’s that for an oxymoron?) I got something better: understanding.
Stone provides us with several cues that the movie is not about politics, it’s about the man who so many revile. Instead of showing us Jr. enjoying the thrills of partying, every time he has a moment of youthful arrogance he is smacked down to earth by George Sr. Having his father repeatedly express his disappointment sucks the life out of Jr., but it also instills in him a fierce drive that is both directionless and determined. At first this manifests itself in self-destructive behavior: harder drinking, wrecking cars, sleeping around. But after a fateful meeting with future wife Laura at a backyard barbecue he slowly begins to gain focus, if not perspective.
The picnic scene is a key to understanding the movie. Even though she is underrepresented in the rest of the film, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush provides the audience a wonderful entry point here. At first she reacts for us, bemused and taken aback at his brash faux cowboy behavior. She even refers to him as “a devil in a white hat.” Then she warms and utters one of the film’s two key lines, “I don’t think that a person should be defined by their politics.”
The other line is actually a refrain of Jr.’s. He repeatedly bemoans the fact that his father will never love or respect him, and this causes him to try to outdo (and appease) the senior Bush. His detachment from his dad leaves him wide open to look for other father figures. Initially, this quest leads him to religion. The preacher who presides over his conversion looks like a used car dealer (but then again a lot of real life preachers do). Played by Stacy Keach, the preacher is genuine, a man who seems to be truly concerned with Jr.’s spiritual progress. The scene in which W. asks the preacher to kneel and pray with him was genuinely affecting, much more so than the overwrought pap which generally suffice for religious conversion scenes.
After achieving the presidency, this lack of paternal caring once again rears its ugly head, this time affecting the entire country, and beyond that the world. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) uses his commanding demeanor to convince Jr. to go to war over the protests of Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who’s arguments are better reasoned. Cheney, however, knows how to appeal to Jr.’s sensibility.
Now, you’d be right to wonder if I buy Stone’s apparent proposal that all of the woes of the last 8 years can be placed at the feet of one man’s daddy issues. Not for a minute. But, despite his ham-handed obviousness, I don’t believe that Stone is actually trying to beat us over the head with his views. Instead, he uses cinema to foster discussions; the film itself is his opening salvo, but it’s not his definitive statement. For example, take the recasting of W.’s most famous misquotes, both public and private. By re-contextualizing these malapropisms into everyday speech they lose much of their power to be mocked. Instead, they play out as one man, in a passionate state, misspeaking, something that happens to every single one of us from time to time when we’re put on the spot.
Our government was designed in such a manner that it would be impossible for one man to ruin it. While one fictionalized account of Bush Jr.’s life doesn’t absolve the man, it does give one pause. The scenes where his advisers are essentially pitching the story of the war to him are telling. Bush starts out thoughtful and sincere but soon becomes swept away by the narrative being spun by Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld as they play on his fears and insecurities. When they hit upon the right combination of imagery and scare tactics to get Jr. riled up they know which story to sell to the American public. After all, he’s just like most of us, the kind of guy you’d probably like to have a beer with.