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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

W. (review)

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.

Watch W. online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated THT (contains a Tragical History Tour that may upset some viewers)
MPAA: rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images
BBFC: rated 15 (contains brief strong reality footage of war)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
  • Jerry Colvin

    I love this review.

  • Jurgan

    The technical term for this is “double-blind what it-” imagining yourself in an alternate world trying to imagine our own world. It works very well for this review. The creativity of it makes this one of my favorite of your reviews in a while.

    Oh, yeah, blah blah blah, liberal bias, blah blah blah, stick to reviewing movies and keep out of politics, blah blah blah, unpatriotic lefty.

  • I generally liked W, it was clever.

    But didn’t you think Josh Brolin looks more like Jeb than W? That was a little weird.

  • MBI

    The film is more tragedy than farce, honestly, but my favorite moment is when Cheney and Powell, two very smart men, butt heads over policy in the War Room for about ten minutes, and then Dubya interjects his own thoughts. I mean, we’ve all thought he was stupid, but I was amazed how instantaneously he lowers the discourse with his stupid, stupid stupidity.

  • Nathan

    I was mostly disappointed. It was too shallow to be tragic. I would have preferred it to either be more sinister or more comical. As it is, it’s like a Cliff Notes version of everything I already knew about him. Brolin was great, though.

    I agree with MBI that the best parts of the movie were Cheney and Powell going at it.

  • P.

    I think Stone & “W.” show W. being successful at running the Texas Rangers, not a failure. The tragedy, in Stone’s eyes, is that after his spiritual epiphany and overcoming alcoholism — which is nothing to sneeze at — W. should have been content with a good job and a family. The tragedy that Stone is trying to convey is not that W. failed at everything, but that his inadequacies and insecurities, brought on by his family, drove him to abandon his successes and get in way over his head.

  • MaryAnn

    his spiritual epiphany and overcoming alcoholism

    The second item is debateable, but the first should be off the table: spouting nonsense about Jesus and not actually acting like you understood anything Jesus taught should not be considered a “spiritual ephiphany.”

  • Dc

    how is she an unpatriotic lefty, i dont get this term liberal bias, im afraid you are biased by your blindness to see the truth, you really need to educate yourself and when you do than you as well can input your oppinion on politics, because politics is not hard, just dont get corrupted.

  • MaSch

    I thought not getting corrupted when doing politics was the hard part about politics …

  • Jurgan

    “how is she an unpatriotic lefty, i dont get this term liberal bias, im afraid you are biased by your blindness to see the truth, you really need to educate yourself and when you do than you as well can input your oppinion on politics, because politics is not hard, just dont get corrupted.”

    Maryann, you have more experience at snark than I: is it always this frustrating when people completely miss the sarcasm in your statements?

  • KevinKeene

    I completely agree, especially in regards to the last line of this review. It reminds me of the movie IDIOCRACY and, although you seemed to not like it, the opening moments of the movie outline the degredation of society through the breeding of the lesser congnitively developed populous of society. It is quite true that we could have a downright idiot in the White House. Every election seems to force americans to choose the lesser of two evils, mostly because one person’s ideals can never please everyone at the same time. One thing some americans forget, though, is that we do not vote directly for the president. The americans that do remember that fact are quick to claim blamelessness when the presidency fails and the people who think they vote directly for the president don’t vote for fear of being blamed. In the end, the president is just a figurehead of leadership, working from the advice of the people around him. If one person were forced to gather all of the required information to make presidential decisions, then he would never have time to come to accurate conclusions. Those advisors, good or bad, should be the focus of our attention, not the president, as this movie (in my opinion) accurately portrays.

  • P.

    Oliver Stone at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081015/PEOPLE/810169997: “Act One is his youth, intermingled with Act Three, his Presidency, and that interconnects with Act Two, his successful middle years. I think overall the most fascinating thing about this incredible President is that he lives up to the American concept of the second chance, and that the second act of his life seems to redeem the first act. The twist on it, to me, is the third act, which becomes a sinister coda to the inauthenticity of his existence.”

    This is semantic, but I think seeing that W. as a success in the 2nd Act of the film is essential to understanding its dramatic structure. “W.” is not 121 minutes of a guy failing, and then at the end failing some more. For the movie to be dramatically interesting, W. MUST, at some point, do something right. No matter how much our election year liberalism would like us to see it otherwise. (I think this is why a previous poster failed to see the movie as “tragic,” probably because s/he refused to see W. as ever capable of doing anything right. That’s only a guess.)

    Dictionary.com defines an “epiphany” as “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”

    An epiphany is not a case of “and after that he understands Jesus/Allah/Buddha/The Cosmos perfectly and never does anything wrong again,” it’s more like a “moment of clarity.” Stone plays straight the bit where W. doubles over in the forest while jogging, so, at least in the reality of the film, I think we can take that scene at face value.

    The clergyman W talks to in the next scene comes across as a good guy. But when the cleric appears a second time, he mirrors W by wearing an absurdly-oversized belt buckle. Stone seems to be saying that a one-time possession of “Truth & Goodness” (at least in the reality of the film), either for W or the clergyman, doesn’t mean we have it forever.

  • MaryAnn

    It reminds me of the movie IDIOCRACY and, although you seemed to not like it

    What? Have you read that review?

    For the movie to be dramatically interesting, W. MUST, at some point, do something right.

    I disagree. And I disagree with the unspoken assumption of that, that whatever was right for Bush as a private individual automatically was right for Bush as a president. The two are not the same at all.

    And I also disagree that something positive can be found in a “religious epiphany” that leads a man to spout platitudes about Jesus all the freakin’ time without seeming to understand what Jesus himself was talking about. That’s not an epiphany — that’s being a parrot for political benefit.

  • KevinKeene

    Aww… I remember the last line of the IDIOCRACY review that said “Whatever you do, just promise me you won’t buy the Idiocracy DVD at Wal-Mart.” I definitely did not mean that as a personal attack. Ok, I admit i must not have seen the sarcasm if you really enjoyed the movie, but that wasn’t the focus of my comments. I was hoping to hear more about what you thought of the rest of my comment, not just that.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, don’t buy it *at Wal-Mart.* You know, like the megaboxboxstore of *Idiocracy.* Not don’t buy it at all. And I did mean that as a personal attack… on Wal-Mart, and on our idiotic culture that has allowed it to flourish.

    I’m simply astonished that anyone could have misinterpreted my review of *Idiocracy,* which was not sarcastic: it was enraged, in sympathy with what that movie depicts.

    But you did miss the sarcasm of *this* review. “It is quite true that we could have a downright idiot in the White House,” you wrote. My point is: We already do.

  • Christopher

    I have to say, being a Democrat who is voting for Obama in two weeks, I was suprised to find I really didnt enjoy this film as much as I thought I would. If you want to see a great satire Mary Ann, I suggest you watch Primary Colors or Charlie Wilson’s War again. While Brolin pulls off the tone and style of “Dubbya” the rest of the cast, with an exception for Richard Dreyfuss, really dont do a great job of portraying the characters they’ve been assigned. Thandie way overplays her facial expressions and tone trying to get that Condi voice. Rummy looks like Christian Bale in American Psycho, and Cromwell is simply playing Cromwell. I dont believe that the main reason for the Iraq war and W’s need to be President and Govener comes from daddy issues. The main problem of Stone’s movie is that unlike Nixon, which was done 20 years after the man left office, or Primary Colors, written four years after the 92 election and mand into a movie seven years after the election, Stone is trying to judge a President and piece information from his Presidency before the event itself has ended. Read your history and you will find that it is not uncommon for Presidents to be unpopular during there administrations and be recieved differently when history finally has time to exaime there works. Truman was hated and is now loved and Eisenhower who was praised is now viewed as a figurehead President. Johnson is getting more credit for pushing Kennedy’s dreams and Nixon is viewed as possibly the most liberal President of the late 20th century. For the most part I take this as Stone’s Bush comedy attempt, where before I took Nixon as Stone’s attempt to understand a President and his legacy. If Stone wanted to do a great critisim of Bush and company it should have been directed at the execution of the war, there ideas, how it was executed, why it didnt work and what it took to come to a realization that a surge could work and how they pulled it off along with showing of what the price of that was as far as Afghany freedom is concerned.

  • MaryAnn

    Afghani freedom? What Afghani freedom?

    I dont believe that the main reason for the Iraq war and W’s need to be President and Govener comes from daddy issues.

    Ah, but do you believe that Dubya believes he’s driven by daddy issues? Stone is suggesting that that’s *all* that drives Dubya, and that’s terrifying.

  • Christopher

    No I dont beleve that drives him at all. W. is driven by the simple belief that he is the only one who can fix this thing and that he is saving future generations of Americans from terrorism by confronting it. He believed intellegence that Iraq was trying to aquire nuclear weapons, he saw that Al Queada had entered north Iraq and was setting up base against Saddam’s wishes, and he believed that it was in the best interest for America to take Saddam out before they attacked, thus starting the whole Bush Doctrine. Was he wrong, you bet, but for Stone to act as if this was all because Daddy never loved him like Jeb is just being naive. Bush always believed “poppy” never finished the job and that over the past 10 years enough UN violations occured that he had enough good reason along with the Saddam nuclear threat to go in, not because he needed to prove daddy he could beat Saddam too.

    As far Afghanstan, I think you missed my point. Instead of securing Afghanstan and making it the equivlant of Bosnia in the 90’s, Dubya decided to pull more and more troops in order to secure Iraq. Because of that the country has broken down and now it looks like another high profile battle with the Taliban, Al Queda, and now insurgents is right around the corner.

  • MaryAnn

    I think you’re giving Bush a lot more credit that he deserves. He has never, ever demonstrated that he actually understands the words he is trained to say. If he *did* actually understand them, that would make him even more dangerous than he already is, and would put him on a level with the truly terrifying people like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, and their ilk.

  • Bill

    This movie, like so many, is a message, but not to you. Unless you are in on it. Several clues are presented. Early on, Cheney says, we are never going to leave. No exit strategy because no exit was ever considered. Follow the money. Resources. We are a civilization built around the automobile, around mobility in general. Empire was mentioned quite often. Believe it. And like the Holy Romans themselves, someone sees nothing wrong in that. Because Global domination, the domination by an economic necessity coupled with a mindset, an idea, no matter how pulpy or vapid, does better to subjugate a hard working proletariat than bureaucracy and cooperation, and union.

  • MBI

    “I dont believe that the main reason for the Iraq war and W’s need to be President and Govener comes from daddy issues.”

    Neither do I, but I don’t think this is a conversation worth having, because I think it works in the movie. I also don’t agree with your analysis of a comedy, because I found it very affecting; that haunting final shot justifies the whole movie in my opinion. The movie’s steps into comedy (“misunderestimate,” “fool me twice… can’t me fool me again”) are its worst moments, I think.

    It’s amazing to me how sympathetic Brolin’s W. is as a confused man struggling to find the right path, and what an intolerable goatmuncher he is as an assured, decisive decider.

  • Christopher

    Wow, I feel is if I have stumbled into the world of the far left. I believe that it is big of anyone to say that a President doesnt understand his own words/doctrine. Bush is very much like an LBJ. He doesnt care what people think of him. He has his views and believes that he is in the right on those views. He understands that this war is unpopular but deep down he believes he is doing what is in this nation’s best interest to end terrorism and to keep the battle from spilling over to American soil. LBJ was the same when it came to civil rights, he believed an act needed to be passed and that until it was America could not be a truly free nation, when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, he was quoted as saying “We just lost the south for a generation.” He ended up being right and I know he’s right because I live in the south today. LBJ knew what the price of his views was, and so does Bush. Does it mean he was correct, who knows we will find out in antoher 15 years, personally I dont think it will work but who am I to predict history before it is written. But to act like I said before that this is all about daddy issues or to act that the man is evil at heart is not only belittling the man, but also trying to tarnish the hardest job any one man can attempt to carry.

  • Sara

    It’s not satire as much as it’s tragedy. Stone is saying to us, look, look what you, the American people have allowed to happen to your country…who you have allowed at the helm. And beware…do NOT do it again. It’s dangerous to anyone on Planet Earth’s health.
    The psychodynamics were well-done and showed what happens when personal (and group) dynamics get played out on the world stage…and dysfunctional psychodynamics.
    The movie was actually bothersome and again, a tragedy in our midst, that needs attention, especially when one of our present candidates voted with W over 90% of the time.

  • Paul

    Christopher, I do believe it is neccessary to judge the Bush presidency now instead of in 15 years. Otherwise how can we make rational judgments about whether to vote for McCain, who wishes to continue those policies, or Obama, who doesn’t? Granted, Obama isn’t as far left as I’d like him to be, but he’s liberal enough for now.

    Oh, and a joke I heard. Bush’s bail out plan is turning him from a social conservative to a conservative socialist.

  • Sara

    I think that there will be other movies made about the Bush administration but I thought Stone did a good job with this movie for this time. What he did show (besides the stuff we know) is the emotions (example: how W and Laura met…and W was not a jerk here, he was likable enough–enough for Laura to be charmed)and we saw family dynamics that seem to follow along with much of what we know or have glimpsed.
    Of importance too, is the lesson for us all to see when an entitled kid is not held accountable by parents who are wealthy and entitled themselves. The kid learns that he will always get “bailed out.” Not someone we need as president of our country…as we have found out. Because of Bush’s mistakes (I’m the decider…I’m the deregulator–which he took to entire new heights and which is causing the struggle of our economy is in huge part a result of the massive amount of deregulation pushed in the past eight years) we are in a terrible mess. It is important to show this and to show how family and individual dynamics DO play into this. And group ones mesh with the individual ones.
    Bush allowed himself to be “used” just as McCain is allowing himself to be used (and as Palin is allowing herself to be used.) McCain has already stated his problems with his father–how he rebelled, how he was reckless (and we’ve seen that in him recently.) He and Bush, psychologically, seem similar in many ways–only McCain seems far angrier which is truly scary. Read the story of McCain (documented well in the Rolling Stone: The Make-Believe Maverick. It is the stuff of nightmares.) Far worse than Bush.
    Watching this movie presented W in a situation way over his head, still hoping for his father’s approval, saved by Jesus, but not “cured” and taking out his addictions (alcohol now transferred to “power”) on the entire world. This is an important narrative for us to see. Because it could happen again with McCain. The dynamics are too similar if one really looks closely. McCain’s warrior ethos also makes him all the more frightening.
    Here’s to the hope of an Obama win on Tuesday. If not, I’m afraid we’re doomed for sure.

  • Christopher

    Paul, it is important to judge him on the current state of affairs. In the end the current crisis is both parties fault, mine for not pushing for stronger oversight on Fannie and Freddie and the Republicans for basically putting all of the Government’s money into the housing market instead of investing into new technologies like Regan and Clinton did. What I was refering to though was more world affairs and the view of the Bush Doctrine. Let’s say McCain wins and continues this doctrine and pretty much makes Al Queada a inactive force. If that happens Bush’s policies will be reflected much better in history. This was true for Truman, Nixon, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln. This is why it is not possible at this time to offer a final verdict on Bush’s administration and why it is premature to call him the worst president in history.

    Sara, I think likening McCain to Bush just isnt the right anaylsis. McCain’s moves the past three months have been the product of a desperate need to get the conservatives behind him. Come Nov. 5 he doesnt need them regardless of the outcome of this election. If he does win, he will more likely return to the old McCain, looking for solutions and being a big fan of deregulation.

    That said, I think this movie did the opposite of what you imply. It was trying to show that he was not used, that he made these decisions and you should hold him accountable for them. Like I said before, Bush has his views set and isnt going to change them. He believes he has the best policy for fighting terrorism and he believes his economic policies work. Notice the only real work that has gotten done these past two years is because either the Dems agreed with the President, the Dems had an override majority or the President didnt have an opinion on the bill either way. He fought the Veterans bill up to the very moment Congress overided his veto. He refused any Iraq bill that had a timeline. Bush doesnt change on anything.

    McCain on the otherhand will try his best to work with those in his party, asking what can we give up and what do we need to get this thing passed if he believes in the bill. The problem though is with things such as off shore drilling he is not going to budge and most likely he is not going to offer anything that the Dems will go along with. Same goes for Iraq and regulation/oversight.

    Finally as far as rich kids not being kept in check, you seem to forget that the Democratic party has been ruled the last 20 years by a man who has killed a woman driving drunk and got in constant trouble as youth, constantly being bailed out by his father and his two more successful brothers. Ted Kennedy proves that just because you made mistakes in your youth (some pretty freaking big ones compared to W.) you can still turn it around and becoming a dominating force in politics in a good way. The difference between W. and Teddy though is that Teddy, like McCain, works within his own party and the opposing party to get legislation done.

  • Sara

    Did you not see in the film how the group that surrounded “W” had their own agendas and they found ways to present this to him, getting them to agree with them? Especially Cheney?
    Re: the rich kid issue…no one said anything about that being a GOP issue only. It’s not. There was a comment, in fact, in W where Poppy says something to the effect, “you’re not a Kennedy, you’re a Bush. Act like one.”
    McCain chose Palin and that shows so much. You say that if elected that McCain will revert to his former self. Well, he’ll have Palin right by his side (good luck with that one)…and if he died, she’d be president. What the heck kind of judgement is that? You can say it’s “pleasing the base”–fine, it is, but that says, then that McCain is all about “winning” which is not “Country First”…if he’s willing to risk having someone like Palin be 2nd in command (that’s a tactic that he used that showed–I think–terrible judgement and a lack of care for the country.) It shows his own agenda to me.

  • D

    I don’t totaly dislike Mccain. But Palin’s creepy. Very, very creepy. Almost a disney villain vibe to her… and Mccain’s health has seen better day’s…

  • Hdj

    First of all Mj, good review i agree with everthing you said and more. I really think he should of stayed with the Texas Rangers, hell if i had a baseball team, id take that job over the presidency anyday.
    I was wondering what did you think of the portrayal of Condoleezza Rice, didn’t she seem bit of a aunt jemima like a “yes mista President” type of role.

    Over all i think the move was well done, I think we got some candidates come Oscar season in this movie.

  • Sara

    Your description of Palin is excellent. I hadn’t thought of it in the creepy Disney character terms, but you’re right on with that. I think of all the Disney fairy tales (never the original fairy tale story, unfortunately) but I think of the stepmother in Cinderella, the Queen in Snow White, the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty. Palin does have that air about her…that snideness, hatefulness and scary “I’ll have my way regardless” attitude.
    (By the way, nothing wrong with stepmothers, but in fairy tales that usually signify the split of part of the “bad” mother.) Look at how Palin is treating her own pregnant daughter–has put her in the spotlight at a very difficult time. Terrible.
    Just as in “W” the motives are examined, it makes sense to be aware of what’s happening in our election right now. (Which I think is one reason Stone made the film “W” at this point in time. As in “Wake up people–pay attention!”

  • Hippy

    Someone tell me something that this administration has done right?

  • MBI

    “Someone tell me something that this administration has done right?”

    That’s an easy one: the replacement of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, the only member of the Bush inner circle whose name hasn’t become a synonym with evil and incompetence.

    You wanna ask a hard question, ask me for TWO things this administration has done right.

  • In general, I enjoyed the movie, but I found it to be oddly kind to Bush, both in the whole ‘taking his religious conversion and sobering up at face value’ that MaryAnn pointed out, as well as the way it missed out the central cruelty and meanness that has always defined him as a person to me.

    I’ll never forget that story of Tucker Carlson’s, in which Bush makes fun of Karla Faye Tucker for being stupid enough to beg him for mercy.

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