I'll start off by saying that I believe George W. Bush to be the worst president that our great nation has ever seen or will ever see. I know many people feel similarly, among them film director Oliver Stone, so I was intrigued when it was announced that Stone's newest movie would be a biopic of Bush, rushed into production so that it could be out before the November elections, and Bush's final days in office. I also wasn't sure how I felt about hearing that Josh Brolin would be playing Bush. It seemed like just the type of role that could derail the rising career of a talented actor like Brolin, who had just come off of a scorching hot 2007 with his roles in No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, Planet Terror and American Gangster. I think many people, including myself, expected some sort of 129 minute diatribe against Bush and his administration. What Stone gave us instead is a movie that trys to put a human face on all the rehearsed soundbites and painful gaffes (both grammatical and strategic) that we've endured under this president. I think he succeeded admirably.
The movie doesn't follow chronological order, but basically shows us W from his days as a fraternity pledge at Yale, to around 2003 after the start of the Iraq War, but before Bush's second term. I think Stone didn't go further than that because he didn't want a 4 hour movie about Bush's entire life, but also didn't want to shortchange any of the things he wanted to show. What Stone shows us is that Bush always had the personal skills (impressing his frat brothers by quickly rattling off their names while being hazed), but he never had the political brains that some people had. People like Bush's father's political advisors Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). He also didn't have his father's distinguished military record to get his foot in the door. All he had was his last name, a name that he at times resented, but eventually put to good use.
We follow W as he goes through his heavy drinking phase, which lasted for about 20 years in reality, but isn't overly harped on in the movie, just enough so that we get the point. W meets a smart young librarian named Laura, a few years later they're married, and a few years after that he is asked to help with his fathers presidential bid. Soon W becomes a sober born again Christian, and shrewdly helps his dad get elected. After Bush Sr.'s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992, W decides to stand up against popular Democrat Ann Richards for the gubernatorial seat in Texas. Both of W's parents advise against it since his brother Jeb was running for Governor of Florida, and they wanted "one Bush at a time". Having felt slighted by his parents in favor of his younger brother his whole life, W runs anyway and wins, while Jeb loses. He eventually feels that God wants him to run for president, so he does, and with the kind of shrewd help he personally gave to his father (both times courtesy of Toby Jones' perfectly slimey Karl Rove) he wins.
We all remember what has happened since then, but the movie covers some of that ground as well. A particularly bone chilling sequence is one that takes place in a high level meeting of the minds about the direction of the country after 9/11. Richard Dreyfuss delivers a frighteningly logical speech about "why Iraq", the country that Colin Powell keeps wondering why everyone is harping on about when it had no known connection to 9/11 (the surprise answer: oil, and strategic placement for future oil). Jeffrey Wright is fantastic in this scene as Powell, the only real military man of the bunch (a 4-star General after all), a fact that he throws back into Cheney's face when Cheney talks down to him on military matters. But Dreyfuss is also terrifically frightening as Cheney, who doesn't have the people skills that W does, so he's content to stay behind the scenes, sometimes literally standing in the shadows (next to Rove, who stays there the whole time), convincing President Bush that war is the answer.
Nearly every one of the supporting roles is well cast, most particularly James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. He tackles portraying a person that we all know (and have seen parodies of for nearly 20 years) and succeeds mightily. We see that his father (who was Senator Prescott Bush) never really gave him any sort of affection, the closest being a gift of a special pair of cuff links, and he transfers that behavior into his own parenting. He tries to be a good father, bailing W out of many bad situations, and pulling strings to get him into good ones. He tries to encourage his son into helping with his campaign, but plays it off that Jeb was busy so he asked W for help instead. This just adds to W's lifelong feelings of being considered the lesser son. Cromwell also has a phenomenal scene where the family watches as the news reports on '92 election night, announcing Clinton's victory. Cromwell just might've earned himself an Oscar nomination with that scene, and he'd deserve it. I don't think Thandie Newton fairs as well in her portrayal of Condoleezza Rice. Her accent seemed a little fake to me, and she seemed to not quite fit into the skin of her character. Elizabeth Banks, however, is good as Laura Bush, who is always there to support W in whatever capacity she can. She and Josh Brolin create a believably loving marriage onscreen. That brings us to Josh Brolin's central performance here as President Bush. While I don't think he looks anything like the man, Brolin captured the essence of W so well that I rarely thought about him as playing W, and just accepted him as W. Brolin portays him as arrogant, often misinformed, but a genuinely good guy who is trying to do his best.
Oliver Stone has crafted a remarkably even handed portrait of one of the most divisive figures of our times. Bush has set records with both the highest presidential approval rating (92% a month after 9/11), and the lowest (19% just last month, his second time being that low). But with the empathetic way Stone shows him, we kinda feel a little bad when everything goes south for him. It's not a perfect movie, or even a great one honestly, but it does have a lot to admire and it could even be up for some awards for a couple of the actors come Oscar season.