History, in Oliver Stone's Washington, takes place in meetings. In JFK, crusading New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison meets with a man known only as "X," played with great gravity by Donald Sutherland. "X," a character modeled after a former Pentagon functionary colonel, quietly walks Garrison through the multifarious but always linear conspiracy that led to Kennedy's assassination. In W, which I saw yesterday with an audience of liberals (judging by the pre-picture chatter), Stone compacts the tragedies of the Bush administration into a series of meetings. In each, as at table readings for, say, The Simpsons, the primary actors—Rummy, Vice, Condi, Karl, Colin, and so on—get into character and utter some of their signature lines. But there seems to be a clear disinterest on Stone’s part in going beyond the zingers and developing the characters beyond the first dimension.
There's Powell, in a meeting at Bush's ranch, warning Bush that if he "breaks" Iraq, he'll have to buy it. There's Rumsfeld, saying, at no point in particular, "There are the known unknowns...." There's Condi, saying, at every available opportunity, "Yes, Mr. President." And then there's the president himself, constructed here as an insecure spouter of aphorisms which now, thanks to Bob Woodward, David Corn, Mike Isikoff and the rest, have become familiar punch lines. "I'm the decider." "I'm not going to negotiate with myself." People "misunderestimate me." "Fool me once..." The lines are almost always out of context, and the history, with a few exceptions, is atrocious. The "X"-like scene of this movie occurs in the situation room, in early 2003, with Dick Cheney making the case for war based on oil, energy, and empire. Powell asks: "What is our exit strategy, Dick?" Cheney: "There is no exit. We stay." The camera zooms in on his reedy grin. Stone is within his rights as a filmmaker to turn three meetings into one, but not to add a character in order to retrofit the history. Karl Rove rarely sat in on war council meetings. He had no say whatsoever on the major decisions Bush made, and he certainly wasn't there, sitting in a corner, for W to flash the thumbs-up sign at. The geopolitics of oil is at least a vaguely plausible platform from which to cast aspersions on George W. Bush's Iraq policies, but Karl Rove, whatever his role in other events of the Bush presidency, simply wasn't there. (The Valerie Plame affair is barely mentioned.)
The emotional spine of the movie, if you can call a bunch of fictitious vignette-flashbacks a spine, is the relationship between Pa Bush and Baby Bush. There's Bush, at 20, getting drunk and knocking up a girlfriend. "So disappointed in you," Pa Bush says. There's Bush at 28, having just gotten into Harvard Business School, threatening to fight his father. (Jeb intervenes.) There's Bush, quitting his job on an oil rig. "Disappointed." There's Bush, as president, having nightmares about his father's "disappointment"—how he ruined the family name forever. And there’s a fictional scene where Barbara Bush urges 41 to "do something" to prevent the boy from going into Iraq. Barbara and W's mother-son dynamic is left strangely unexplored. If Stone had gone there... then maybe he'd have a movie!
Josh Brolin's W is serviceable...more of a good caricaturist than anything else. James Cromwell inhabits 41 in a way that no other actor in the movie inhabits his or her character, so the gap between his performance and the others is striking. Elizabeth Banks's Laura Bush is effective, but what she sees in a young W is unclear. Richard Dreyfuss's Cheney is just not that good. What motivates Cheney—the film's foil—is not clear.
The story Stone presents has been told over and over, creating grooves in the brains of Bush-haters. Stone could have gone for something more subtle, but instead he chose the dartboard approach—with one exception. Bush's religious conversion is treated sensitively and believably, and it leads to the best scene in the film, where the younger Bush and a cadre of political advisers try to convince the patrician Episcopalian 41 to speak the language of born agains. 41 didn't go for that.
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