W. (2008)

Rated PG-13. Our Rating: V- 2; L-3 ; S/N-1 . Length: 2 hours 11 min.

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no
one can see the kingdom of God without being
born from above.”
John 3:3

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” —this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:1-4

W. at his desk.

2008 Lionsgate Films

Not nearly as stridently anti-Bush as I had expected, Oliver Stone’s newest venture into Presidential bi ography draws as much on psychological insights as biography. The father and son tension that at one point almost erupted into a fist fight seems central to the director’s take on the 43rd US President. This is similar to the opinion of many of the pundits who claim that the real reason for our President’s invasion of Iraq was as much his desire to finish what he regarded as his father’s failure to complete the job by taking out Saddam Hussein in the First Iraq War as it was about oil or avenging 9-11.

Josh Brolin as President George W. Bush turns in the performance of his distinguished career. Starting with a meeting in 2002, the film moves back and forth in time, beginning with Bush’s college fraternity initiation, during which he displays some of the qualities that will enhance his later political career. Though the vodka has flowed freely during the hazing, the amiable Bush is the only pledge who can go around the room and name every fraternity member. There follows scenes of his carousing, going to jail, helping his father in his 1971 political campaign, or rather, being called on the carpet for his wild antics, the father (James Cromwell) yelling, “Who do you think you are?! You’re a Bush! Act like one!” And then comparing him unfavorably to older brother Jeb. This sort of thing will continue throughout the film, father expressing his disapproval, and the younger son struggling to emerge from the shadow of his older, more successful brother. (Father at first thinks it a joke that W. intends to run for the Texas governorship.)

While showing his encounter with and courting of Laura (Elizabeth Banks) during his first run for Congress, and eventual advice to his father during the 1988 Presidential campaign (attack Gov. Dukakis via the infamous Willy Horton ad), Stone does not venture to explain what Bush was doing while serving in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. What he does cover is chilling enough, Bush at times joking during the conference with his inner circle when they discuss invading Iraq. Richard Dreyfuss is Dick Cheney and Toby Jones, Karl Rove, constantly pushing their hard line policies. Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice seems like a compliant, go-along team member, with only Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell raising serious questions about both the intelligence they are acting on and the outcome of the policies they are about to implement. To his question about an exit strategy, Cheney’s reply is chilling, “There is no exit strategy,” implying that we will stay because of the oil.

Bush the born-again believer (after his brush with death) comes across as sincere, truly changing his personal life around. Stacy Keach plays Earle Hudd, the evangelical Christian (pastor?—not indicated in the film) who counsels Bush, both during his period of searching and later on in the Texas governor’s office when Bush tells him that he has been called by God to run for President. But Stone makes it clear that he thinks that sincerity is not enough to make a successful President, as we see in a press conference and in the strange, recurring scenes of Bush in an empty baseball stadium and yet filled with the sound of the crowd cheering. This is a film that calls for repeated viewing, each of which could generate unlimited discussion about the qualities that make for a good Chief Executive, the consequences of a President’s decisions, and, of course, the affect our fathers have upon us. Despite coming out during the recent election campaign, the film did only moderate business at the box office, and so as I write this, has already left the first run theaters. It is worth searching out at a “cheap seat” theater or, no doubt soon, when it is released on DVD.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers ahead.

1) Were you surprised at Oliver Stone’s portrait of George W. Bush? In what ways does he seem to be fair? Unfair?

2) What are the scenes in which we see conflict between father and son? How much do you think this motivated the son to enter and succeed at politics? Especially in his decision to invade Iraq?

3. What do you make of the scenes of Bush in a baseball park? Of the last one—the way in which he is dressed; no ball?

4) How does Christian faith turn Bush’s life around? How is his description to Earl of his sinful life as “a weight” appropriate? (Note a somewhat similar metaphor of past sin as a burden for Robert DiNiro’s character in the film The Mission.) During Earl’s prayer when we hear “see the light” note the effectiveness of the CU of an eye.

5) What do you think of the later, converted, Gov. Bush’s revelation to Earl that God has called him to run for President?

6) How do you reconcile Bush the Christian with his advise to his father, running for the Presidency, to trash his opponent with the Willie Horton ads?

What do you think of the reasons stated for going into Iraq that we hear in the meeting of Bush and his advisors?

7) How does the scene in which Bush and Cheney learn that there were no WMDs, that Saddam was bluffing, show the difficulty in giving up long held beliefs? What does the scene in bed with Laura reveal when he says that all he wanted to do was to make this a safer world. “There’s good, and there’s evil. Good ultimately wins out.” Any complexity in his view? What is its danger, especially when the person holding it is President?

8) How does the last press conference and Bush in the baseball stadium seem to sum up Oliver Stone’s view of the Bush Presidency? What do you think? How was Bush a burden and an opportunity for the candidates in the recent Presidential campaign?

9) Shakespeare lovers might want to revisit the scene in Henry V, in which the King reflects on the responsibility of a leader sending so many people into battle, that the cause had better be worth it.