Not only is the ink not dry on the history of the Bush administration, it’s still being written. Banner headlines with the word “crisis” appear in newspapers seemingly every other day. There are ongoing wars in two highly unstable countries.
Yet, with the feature film “W.” (reviewed on B4), Oliver Stone has attempted to pre-empt popular history’s verdict on George W. Bush.
In the first major review of “W.,” which opens in area theaters today, Variety magazine’s Todd McCarthy wrote that, while “inescapably interesting,” the movie “feels like a rough draft” that Mr. Stone should revisit 10 or 15 years from now.
After all, the Oscar-winning director had decades’ worth of distance from which to cinematically sum up the legacies of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Mr. Stone replied, in an interview with CNN this week, that “W.” is not merely about the last eight years; rather, it’s a “character study” — and George Bush, the character, is a consequential man of 62 years. What were the critical life experiences that predate his years in politics? How did growing up in the shadow of a famous and influential family shape his personality?
These are the psychobiographical questions that “W.” most concerns itself with. Mr. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who bragged to Reuters news agency of having read 17 books about the president) fashioned a classic Oedipal rivalry between George H.W. Bush — the stern patrician, the World War II hero - and his callow, unfocused, unserious son (played by Josh Brolin).
The elder Bush, portrayed in “W.” by the great character actor James Cromwell, is continually, and profoundly, disappointed by “Junior,” whose younger brother, Jeb, seems a more suitable vessel to uphold the Bush family name.
Stung by parental rejection and numerous professional failures, “W.” holds, George W. Bush gave up drink and took up evangelical Protestantism, becoming a dry drunk and religious fanatic with shallow certitude about complex matters like life and war. From there, it was a short march into a Mesopotamian debacle — fought, fundamentally, to prove that he was both stronger than and worthy of his doubting father.
Despite Mr. Weiser’s formidable syllabus, “W.” is highly speculative stuff. Its central narrative won’t surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity with the president’s life story. The question becomes not whether certain biographical elements of the story are true, but, rather, whether they are magnified beyond all proportion and context.
“W.” is entertaining in a flakily propagandistic way, but its writing feels oversimplified and its performances unexpectedly — and frequently jarringly — glib, almost Pythonesque in their comic staging.
The movie’s promotional poster, by the way, with Mr. Brolin’s Bush sitting on a toilet under the words “Sitting President,” all but invites viewers to revert to predispositions.
James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University and the author of “Power Play: The Bush Presidency and the Constitution,” having studied and written frequently about the administration, says he’s looking forward to seeing the film — even if “it does seem too soon to render a fully balanced evaluation.”
Average viewers may not know much about the details of President Bush’s background. They might, as Mr. Stone claims to hope, come to empathize with certain aspects of his life.
Still, Mr. Pfiffner adds, “Regardless of how good the film may be, partisans from both sides will complain that the depiction of Bush is either too kind or too critical.”
There Mr. Pfiffner arrives at the rub: It’s too soon for “W.” Emotions are too raw; nerves are too jangled.
The timing of “W.,” quite apart from its content, guarantees that it will inflame more than it will illuminate.
Imagine, if you could, a feature film about President Truman coming out in the fall of 1951, with the Democrat embroiled in the Korean War and the country about to elect a World War II icon, Dwight Eisenhower, on the Republican ticket.
Or imagine a movie about President Bush pere in 1991, with the country flush from victory in the first Gulf War. Or, alternatively, in 1992, in the throes of recession.
Would either film, with no time for revision, have taken the full measure of a man whom journalist Jonathan Rauch called, in a 2000 essay in the New Republic, “our greatest modern president” for his deft management of the end of the Cold War, the savings-and-loan crisis and the still-bitter wounds of the Nicaraguan contra scandal?
Aren’t feature films about presidents, in a sense, self-selecting? Don’t they hew to the obviously dramatic, as opposed to the “sure-footed and unglamorous,” as Mr. Rauch described the first Bush 41 administration?
Strictly as a box-office matter, it’s an unwise time to release “W.”
The vast majority of voters-slash-moviegoers say they’re desperately ready to turn the page on the Bush years.
Oliver Stone chose the wrong time, substantively and emotionally, to ask us to relive them.