Poor Little Rich Boy
Surely this is the greatest satire of the American presidency ever made for film. It’s kinda like Being There, but far more terrifying: instead of a wise, gentle idiot becoming president, here it’s an incurious, perpetually adolescent idiot who ascends to the highest office in the land. Surely this would be a horror story if it were true — and at times it feels like it could only be true, in that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way, it’s so preposterous — but safely ensconced in the realm of cinematic nonsense, we can breathe easy.
Well, we can breathe easy for the moment. Director Oliver Stone (Alexander, Wall Street) appears to be offering us a cautionary tale, for as preposterous as W. is in its suppositions, it is profound, too, in its implications: we must guard against the likes of these events ever coming to pass, Stone is saying, because what would be likely to happen were someone like George W. Bush to become president would be incalculably awful.
Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also wrote the satire Wall Street) have invented a scenario that calls to mind Karl Marx’s dictum about how history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” They give us a late 80s/early 90s president called George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell: Spider-Man 3, Becoming Jane), father to their anti-Chauncey Gardiner here, who takes the nation to a short but, by all accounts, brilliantly executed war in the Middle East; his reelection is cut off, however, by economic worries that overshadow the military victory, and the elder Bush is left a bitter and broken man.
Enter George W. Bush (a vivid yet intentionally appalling creation of actor Josh Brolin: American Gangster, Grindhouse: Planet Terror). As the film opens, he is already president during the early 2000s, and he is a shocking caricature, all the worse qualities of politicians bound up in one swaggering, malaprop-talking package. He calls himself “the decider” with a kind of childish glee. During a stroll on his ranch in Texas with his advisors — who are a pack of cunning jackals manipulating the president for their own nefarious purposes — he gets lost on his own land. Most hilarious, he talks to those advisors as if he were educating them on whatever finer (not) points of policy are on the table: he never realizes that he’s their puppet.
This would all be bad enough during an ordinary, peaceful point in American history, and a terrible enough reflection on the American electorate that sent this man to the Oval Office — was it Mencken who foresaw the White House eventually being adorned by a downright moron? — but Stone and Weiser posit a nation at war. A dreadful terrorist attack has, apparently, taken place on American soil, and this is the excuse the aforementioned cunning jackals take to manipulate President Bush into launching a preemptive war against a Middle Eastern country that had nothing to do with it. Which he does… with the full approval of the American people. It’s probably best that Stone does not attempt to mount this inciting terrorist attack for the screen, because this is one of those situations in which your imagination works better than anything the movies can do: it’s hard to see how any event could be so terrible that it would induce ordinary Americans to take revenge against an uninvolved party.
Or that could be a fault of the storytelling here. Stone and Weiser are never content to leave any bit of preposterousness alone, and keep piling it on. For as they flash back to the decades that brought the younger Bush to the presidency — and the American people to this ignominy — it may get to be a bit too much. Bush is a constant failure at everything he attempts, from working in the family oil business to a run for Congress in Texas to ownership of a major league baseball team: no matter how high up his family connections get him kicked, he ruins it. Could a man like that ever become president? Is that too ridiculous even for a clearly satirical movie to hypothesize?
I’m thinking too much about W. One cannot judge a movie like this on its likeliness, just on how well it runs with its baloney. And this one sprints all the way to a triumphant finish line. Brolin is endlessly amusing, whether he’s saying things such as “My dream is to see peace break out in the Middle East,” as if he were a beauty pageant contestant, or comparing himself to Moses, seeing a divine hand in his run for the presidency. (It’s kind of astonishing, actually, to see a smart actor like Brolin manage to be so convincingly shallow, approaching every action and every line of dialogue — whether he’s talking about taking the nation to war or contemplating going to see Cats — with the same unflappable even keel.) Stone brings a riotously mock-tragic, or mock-“tragical,” as his putative hero might say, undertone to it all, from his ironic soundtrack to the way he stages the planning sequences for Bush’s war, as if it were something out of a 1960s James Bond movie, half a dozen maniacal lunatics — Richard Dreyfuss’s (Tin Man, Poseidon) “Vice President Cheney” being the most outrageous of them — locked in a room and planning an eternal occupation of the Middle East.
We can’t laugh so hard at W., though, that we don’t heed its warning. Mencken said it, Stone is saying it again, and I believe it: we’re heading for the day when a downright moron occupies the White House if we’re not careful.