Dubya Indemnity

Although he set out to make a serious film, once he had done his exhaustive research on the subject there was something so cosmically unilateral about Mutually Assured Destruction, Stanley Kubrick’s only option was to turn to slapstick. The acid farce of Dr Strangelove is framed around a clownish cabal of madmen, somehow entrusted to positions where they hold the fate of mankind in their hands. Even if they no longer control the hand, they cling to power though arrogance and private stupidity, desperate to fulfil their own agendas regardless of the consequences. If Kubrick was alive today he might find parallels in the last days of the Bush administration and the same sour laugh in his throat.

Oliver Stone’s W., a biographical study of the brash cowpoke from Texas, chronicles George W Bush’s early years as a failed oilman and baseball team owner through his run for Congress, his work on his father’s presidential campaign, his election as Governor of Texas and finally his ascent into the White House where, at the time of writing, he is silently running down the clock until Barack Obama can take over in January, and save us all.

In W, Stone is looking to make comedy out of tragedy. Central to his analysis is a psychological conjecture about Bush only being motivated in politics to win the approval of his father, the 41st President and to prove himself a worthy scion of the illustrious family. Which is all well and good, and most likely true, but portraying him as a daddy’s boy without the smarts to realise the opportunity he has been given is not nearly a close enough analysis. Furthermore, Stone is far too selective in what he picks to illuminate his point of view. The focus here is on the fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction, the invention that gave the green light for war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but the details of the war itself are passed over: the four thousand American casualties and the countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead go unmentioned.

None of the Bush administration’s strange neologisms are referenced; water-boarding, extraordinary rendition, My Pet Goat, Haliburton, Abu Ghraib. Having already made his monument to September 11th in World Trade Centre, it is understandable that Stone doesn’t return to the subject, but there is no excuse for him passing over the scandalous response to Hurricane Katrina, the questions surrounding the 2004 election, the Enron meltdown or, even as the film was being shot, the looming financial crisis. The oddest thing about W is how even-handed Stone is with his subject but by selecting his punches he misses a lot of the ones that matter. What W lacks most is what it needs most, courage.

About three days after his ascension to power, Bush was labelled a dummy. Stone too sees him as a blundering fool but since he managed to get himself re-elected, wage war on every front he could find and destroyed the American economy from the inside, to underestimate him and his cronies seems, to me, to be a trivialisation and a mistake. The caricature is easy and Stone doesn’t make it any more difficult for himself than he has to. Part of the problem is that the story is as yet, unfinished. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser ends the film on a triumphant note, 2004’s re-election, which makes for a more manageable running time but this is a story that lacks a third act. This desire to paint the portrait in broad strokes also extends to the major figures in Bush’s life; his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) becomes little more than a cheerleader. His family, including envied brother Jeb, are almost invisible.

Although he shares a lot of screen time with them, Bush’s cabinet are reduced to impersonations. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) as a rat-faced Iago. Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton) is a squinting schemer. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is a tormented military man. Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) is a bloodthirsty madman and Karl Rove (Toby Jones, the best of the lot) an ethereal conscience, carrying a stack of polling data. Rove and Cheney are Bush’s closest allies and the two men who understand him best, instinctively manipulating his ambitions and his fears to suit their own political ends. The drama between these characters, however, is pitched at the level of a sit com farce, when the reality is something far more sinister.

There is more meat on Stone’s deftly drawn psychodrama between father and son, with James Cromwell as Bush Sr playing a stern, almost papal figure that set expectations for his son that the boy could never match. In the midst of this flurry of pulled and missed punches, it is Josh Brolin as Dubya who holds the centre of the film together. With a puzzled smirk and a simian crouch, Brolin transcends simple mimicry to create a credible character; dislikeable and smug but somehow human in his failings. History will not be so lenient.

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