A STRANGE, INCOMPREHENSIBLE TALE
I liked W enough to watch it twice, something that I have rarely done with a movie. I saw it twice because I wanted to again get the logic-defying feeling of how incomprehensible and bizarre the story of George W Bush's rise to the presidency is. How did a simple-minded alcoholic bum, constantly living in the shadow of his grudging father who still bailed him out, become the most powerful man in the world? How did his intellectually bereft and wayward life, a large part of which was spent nurturing self-doubt, insecurity and ideals formed in his own little perfect world and perfectly ordinary mind, take him to the pinnacle of power, power so all-encompassing that it has changed the destiny of this country and the world forever and for the worse? And last but not the least, why did the American people elect George W Bush?
Perhaps disappointingly, Oliver Stone does not seek to answer these questions. But that is probably a wise choice since it is best to let history's own canon of psychoanalysis judge this man in the years to come and try to answer such questions, questions which almost certainly will ask that we look beyond the man and into the fabric of American history and its lofty love affair with ideals. Instead Stone simply and rivetingly lets the camera roll on W's life, lets his life flow as a stream of consciousness (and at times alcohol-induced unconsciousness) from Yale to Washington, from nothingness to everything. Also wisely, Stone does not try to either provide a scathing review of W and his impact on our civilization; again history will be the more comprehensive judge of that and will have plenty of fodder and time to keep itself occupied for decades. But most importantly, unlike he did in his epic biopic Nixon, Stone does not try to portray W as a flawed, tragic hero who set out to do good but ended up taking the country and himself into a downward spiral. Such a portrayal would be a great disservice to the people of this country.
Instead Stone gives us a ring side seat in the circus that was Bush's life. In order to accomplish this, he calls upon a superb cast of actors who are faced with the always difficult task of playing living characters. Josh Brolin's George Bush deserves at least an Oscar nomination. It must have been formidable to play a character who cannot be caricatured because he is a caricature of himself. Only Bush can imitate Bush's Texan drawl, his condescending and patronizing looks, his smug "mission-accomplished" smile, his wonderful love affair with the English language and his mind which seems to avoid all complexities and directly charges towards fatal, simplistic and delusional world views. Yet Brolin does a superb job and roots himself into this strange man's shoes, often brilliantly illuminating his tics and quirks. Stone surrounds Brolin with actors who each convincingly play infamous people in Bush's life. Not surprisingly, Richard Dreyfuss does the best job in playing Dick Cheney. He looks more than a little like Cheney and imitates the chameleon-like Cheney with his devious and sinister mind exceedingly accurately. James Cromwell does not look like Bush senior but does a great job in playing out HW's emotional and caring personality. Elizabeth Baker as Laura Bush, Toby Jones as Karl Rove and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell are all very good.
In order to comprehend the convoluted disaster that is George W Bush, Stone focuses on a few key factors, events and people who most shaped him. Perhaps key among these is the relationship he had with his father, an emotional, stern and grudging man who always doted on George's brother, was orders of magnitude more accomplished than his bumbling son, and in spite of all his condescending disapproval, could not stop himself from bailing out this cantankerous infant from every sticky situation- from getting him out of jail after a drunk party to providing a launching pad for him for several jobs, none of which W could sustain. One almost gets a feeling that George Bush was bent on becoming the president to please his father. That was the only way he could redeem himself in the old man's eyes, the way a child would climb a taller tree than his father did simply to show his father who was stronger. More importantly that seems to have been the only way in which he could recognize his self-worth.
There are other crutches that the insecure, idealistic young man grasps at, crutches that would shape his life and his country in profound ways. One is his friend Karl Rove who seems to have genuinely cared for him since the early days. The other is the nefarious Dick Cheney, a man who was already highly experienced and accomplished in the art of politicking and deception when W came to power. Condoleeza Rice provided an archetypal yes-man, fawning and smiling, tacitly agreeing with everything even if she may not agree with anything in reality. If Rice ever harbored dissenting opinions, she always kept her mouth shut. Between her shuttling back and forth on planes and shaking hands with a record number of heads of state, Rice was the classic accomplice to sin in the Bush administration. So dedicated was she to this man that she decided to adopt his picture of the world to her own picture frame even if the frame bent and cracked in the process. And as for Donald Rumsfeld, he played the intellectual-sounding decisive powerhouse that Bush perhaps secretly wanted to be. A veteran of the Ford, Reagan and senior Bush administrations, like Bush, Rumsfeld was convinced that the key to establishing America's place in the world was a psychological war of ideas and principles. Paradoxically, or perhaps not so at all, Rummy's ideas were to ride in Humvees and were to be perched on top of bazooka launchers.
These individuals who Bush surrounded himself with provided him with the intellectual tools he lacked to comprehend the world. Because he could not judge the consequences of his thoughts and actions, he let his advisors shape them, and trusted them wholeheartedly. Like Ronald Reagan, he liked to reduce complex scenarios to old buddy kind of tales, no matter how distorted the analogies might be. For example, in one scene, he ominously and quickly equates Cheney's accounts of possible "advanced interrogation techniques" to his own hazing days in the secret Skull and Bones Yale society when incoming Bonesmen were stripped, drenched with beer and asked to recall the names of senior Bonesmen (George does good in this). Such techniques could not possibly be immoral if they were simply glorified versions of Yale fraternity boys' pranks. Hell, they could even sound like fun.
Perhaps this was Bush's way of conveniently laying possible blame for the consequences on others and embedding such policies in some moral, righteous, harmless vision . But mostly it was his way of reinforcing the age-old neoconservative conviction of seeing American as the world's steward, himself as the good guy and other unpleasant characters in the world as well-defined cartoon villains. If he, George Bush believed something and if that something was articulated eloquently by Dick Cheney, it must be the right thing to do and anyone who opposes it must be wrong and "against him". Bush's worldview combined with his advisors shaping it into bite-sized righteous-looking chunks, gave a decidedly objective aura to his subjective opinions. That pleased him. After this, it was not too difficult to see the world as a paradigm of "us vs them". Curiously, one can almost forgive the younger Bush for harboring idealistic opinions and ambitions. But one can never forgive him for not changing those rose-colored goggles when the situation critically demanded it, and for intentionally surrounding himself with advisors who were more than eager to oblige and tell him exactly what he wanted to hear.
Together, these advisors provided Bush with a cast of dark, vindictive and sinister policy makers who wanted to bring about the "permanent majority" that Karl Rove often touted. After 9/11 they had a field day as far as selling their viewpoints to the President was concerned. They helped to shape the faltering, semi-coherent thoughts in the deep recesses of his mind into tangible policy decisions and applicable principles. One of the most revealing and fascinating scenes is when in the situation room of the White House, Bush and his advisors are hard at work trying to come up with a plausible reason for attacking Iraq. Part of the motivation definitely was Poppy Bush's visceral hatred for Saddam. But Bush's main role in trying to rationalize such a history-defining event seems to simply let Cheney take the reins. In a 10 minute monologue in which Bush simply listens and then in a symbolic gesture gets up from his place at the head of the table and retreats to the side next to Rove into the shadows, Dick Cheney massages, spins and weaves the extremely serious consequences of this pivotal action and all the moral baggage it may carry into a perfectly plausible and moral-sounding tale of how such an event would not only secure America's presence in the Middle East but also bring democracy and stability to the unstable region. It's almost as if Cheney wants to convince everyone in the room of the primarily moral nature of American intervention, and wants to tout the access to Middle Eastern oil that it would give the United States almost as a side-benefit. It's a masterful performance, quite certainly one of many Cheney must have provided on cue. Everyone in the room comes up with their own reasoning to support it, and needless to say, the Commander in Chief buys it hook, line and sinker. It is perfectly in line with his glazed, monolithic view of the world and his own destiny.
Everyone agrees...well, almost everyone. Not Colin Powell. Powell is the only bona fide soldier in the room, and he constantly questions the wisdom of both the practical and moral aspects of such intervention. He has extended tense moments with Cheney. Most of his objections are listened to with the kind of patronizing impatience that parents accord children when they are trying to convince them of something. In the end, short of ganging up on him, Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney and finally Bush make it clear to Powell; he is either in or out. Powell grudgingly concedes, realizing that it would be better to be an insider, go along with policy and try to have at least some influence rather than be expelled from formal decision making and be ineffectual. In the end Powell was not only ineffectual but shouldered a considerable moral burden, but at least he tried.
Along with human crutches, there were the transcendental ones that saved George Bush. A habitual alcoholic, Bush gave up drinking when he was about 40, disillusioned by his own lack of success in life and his inability to foster a more focused destiny for himself. Under the care of one of those quintessentially pious-sounding, ruddy Texas pastors, Bush probably achieves the one success in his life when he quits drinking. Religion catches hold of him like a spell and sets him on an irreversible trajectory, and not surprisingly when the turn of the century looms on the horizon, he is convinced that it is God who is going to bequeath the Presidency of the United States to him. It was one of the signature hallmarks of religious thinking- a tendency to reinterpret the facts to suit your worldview instead of adopting your worldview to keep in line with the facts- that defined much of his actions. After that, creationism in schools, faith-based initiatives and messianic missions to the Middle East were only a step away.
Among many questions that that the movie asks, one in particular may seem trivial, but it cannot escape our minds. Why did Laura marry George Bush? Bush meets the pretty Laura Welch at a party. There is some political conflict since she is not rooting for Barry Goldwater, but the idealistic educator finds this naive, linguistically challenged, simple minded man a fundamentally good person. Like many of his advisors, she then becomes wedded to the idea of George Bush rather than George Bush himself. Even when she can see the flaws, she sees him as a struggling child who needs to be constantly supported in his hour of need. She is there for him at every step of the way, and while her metamorphosis into a benign version of Bush's mother is highly disappointing, we can sense the closeness and genuine love between the couple. One can only venture a guess about what this intelligent woman who loves educating children must have thought about her husband's no child left behind policy.
This then is the W that Stone portrays. His strange and depressing story looks like a work of fiction and gives us pause to think. In this land where genuine ability is guaranteed to bring you success, George's W Bush's ascendancy to power is a disturbing and ominous fact that would always glare at the world from the pages of history. W himself could care less for for it because as one of his own aberrantly memorable lines said it, "In history we will all be dead". We could say that this man would never have become President if it were not for his father. But W's story also points to an even more disturbing strain in the American psyche and in fact in the mind of human beings everywhere, painfully reinforced in 2004, that worships simple-mindedness and dumbed-down visions of the world. Perhaps it reflects a tendency in all of us to see the world in monolithic terms, a kind of world that all of us might possibly cherish. But such a world does not exist and it would be to our everlasting detriment to try to mould its complex elements into shreds of simplistic ideals and principles, and even more devastating to root for leaders who wallow in such amorphous dreams.
The fact that such a monolithic world does not exist is why it seems quite at home in a movie. In its review of the film, the Washington Post criticized Stone for producing a movie about George W Bush when in the last eight years the country and the world has already been living in a bad movie. Why do we need a movie about George Bush when George Bush has been the director, producer, cameraman, screenplay writer and costume expert for his own movie, one in which all of us have been grabbed by the scruff of our neck, made to get on our knees and forced to play a role?
To me the answer is simple. The movie that Bush has made is so all-pervasive that we may mistake it for the real world. It's not, or at least it should not be. And it's pivotal to drive this point home by making a real movie about those times. Stone has done just that.