Here in the mid-Atlantic we are buried in snow. The winter winds howl through the trees, scattering frost and banging the wind chimes against the house. For us, this spells Movie Time! Alas, we were unprepared, and had to choose something from the paltry HD offerings on Verizon FIOS' on-demand service. Fortunately, there was one film in the line up which caught our eye - Oliver Stone's "W."
We popped some corn, and snuggled under a blanket with high hopes for being entertained. "W" promised an embarrassing expose of our 43rd president. We were expecting to see all sorts of outrageous footage depicting his drunken debaucheries, financial failings and total lack of regard for the responsibilities facing him as commander-in-chief. We were also hoping for some juicy insights into his daughters' behavior...maybe some table-dancing and tequila shots, followed by an alcohol-fueled tantrum aimed at their loyal secret service detail.
Unfortunately, what followed was some of the worst movie making I've ever seen.
"W" glossed over all the good stuff, and left us confused as to what really happened in the White House for the past eight years. There was nothing in the film that I couldn't piece together on my own from previously-aired news conferences and media footage. The real reasons behind invading Iraq are merely hinted at, and the wordy subterfuge of W's closest advisers is overplayed.
His early life was what really interested us, and yet Stone's treatment of Bush, Jr.'s formative years is extraordinarily superficial. One minute George W. is offering a half-assed wedding proposal to a blonde in a Texas roadhouse, the next he's shown standing in the middle of a baseball field glowing with pride over his acquisition of the Texas Rangers. There's no mention of the girl again, until his father, George H. W., makes a passing swipe at his son about how he "knocked-up" some young woman, and Sr. had to clean up the mess to keep W on track.
On track for what, we still don't know. Every time we see W talking to his father, the conversation is focused on Jr.'s lack of ambition. Yet, George, Sr. is downright angry when his son decides to run for governor in Texas. Apparently the objections center around the logistical conflicts posed for the elder Bushs, who already have their hands full supporting Jeb's campaign in Florida.
Next thing you know, W is dating Laura Welch, and the only reference to his alcoholism is the morning he wakes up with a killer hangover and bemoans the difficulty of running three miles after a night of drinking. Cut to a scene of him at a Bible study. There's no indication of which faith it is, or of how the faith ties into his sobriety. The only clue that he's quit drinking comes by way of his pastor, who praises W for going six months without a drink.
Jump ahead, and George, Jr. is president of the U.S. of A. There's no mention of the election debacle, hanging chads, Katherine Harris or the Sore-Loserman campaign. The film even skips over 9/11. Suddenly we find ourselves in the War Room with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, George Tenet, Tommy Franks and Condi Rice.
Powell makes the mistake of speaking out in favor of diplomacy at the initial "what to do about Iraq" meeting. You quickly see that the others are hell-bent on going to war, and Bush doesn't want anyone standing in their way. Why is Bush so keen on going to war with Iraq? Other than providing a vehicle for showing up his dear, old Dad, it's still not clear.
Tenet refuses to give his approval for use of the WMD "intelligence," but he quickly tires of the relentless schedule of speech writing revisions, and hands off responsibility to a deputy. This gives Bush's handlers the lack of scrutiny they need to run with whatever will win public support for an invasion.
Already knew all this? Yeah, us, too. This film doesn't give you anything new.
Bush's inner circle consists of Rove, Rummy, Cheney and Condi, and they constantly disguise their competence in order to avoid angering the president. Bush tells Cheney to "keep it quiet in meetings," but Cheney still manages to run the show. Rove is the image guy. The one who coaches W through his talking points and helps him stay on message, while perpetuating the illusion that W is in charge.
Rummy just seems to have a penchant for taking military action. He is portrayed as a mere puppet, and his dialog consists of convoluted declarations that leave room for retraction if they happen to land on the wrong side of the favored agenda. This isn't the Rummy I saw on the news during the early days of "Operation Freedom." There are a lot of bad things you can say about the guy, but approval-seeking and back-pedaling have never been his trademarks.
Questions that linger: why does Rummy push past the evidence showing flaws in the WMD intelligence? Why is he so gung-ho for mobilizing the troops? At least with Cheney, his oil-lust is on the table from the beginning.
Condi is another one whose identity remains obscured. She dials the phone when Bush needs to talk to foreign dignitaries, and listens quietly on the other line, never offering an opinion of her own. She also dutifully points out Iraq on the map, so the president doesn't look foolish in meetings. But at the end of the film, we still don't know who she is, or why Bush chose her for his inner circle.
The only consistent theme in the entire movie is the portrayal of Bush as intellectually lazy and incredibly insecure about his relationship with his father. Whether it's the oil rig job that he quits abruptly, or the relentless delegation of everything substantial on his plate, W is clearly not cut out for the mental challenges facing a leader. The daddy issues are just another manifestation of his inability to take responsibility for anything. Even George, Sr. can't figure out why his son is so defensive, and out-of-touch with reality.
"What about Katrina?" you might be wondering. Well, there's no mention of the greatest natural disaster our country faced in recent history in this film. Just like the election and 9/11, Katrina is not on the radar. Neither are the Bush daughters. It's as though they don't even exist.
"W" leaves us with many questions, and few answers. The film makes for a lousy, incomplete excuse for a biopic. It relies far too heavily on W's relationship with his father to explain away his shortcomings, instead of seeing the troubled relationship as the symptom of something larger. What is clear is the fact that Oliver Stone did not have access to the Bush family, or anyone in their close confidence, because he does not know "W" any better than we do.