Released in the twilight of George W. Bush’s presidential term, Oliver Stone’s W. works best as an examination of the discord between father and son, exalting universal themes of jealousy and doubt to the theater of international diplomacy. Cursory viewings imply the depth of a crass joke, disfigured by parodic supporting performances and insulting punchlines, which prop up political paragons like statues in a wax museum. Further analysis reveals a cunning compositional strategy, one that fights to humanize the whipping boy portrayed in American media (see Fahrenheit 9/11), mining the depth of his vulnerability for mutual understanding. By draining George’s advisory team of their human properties and lifting his patriarch to the role of deity, Stone establishes the Bush family black sheep as an eternal outcast, confining his wealth of imperfections to an Oval Office inhabited by automatons and haunted by the ghosts of his old-man’s accomplishments.
Abandoning chronology in favor of atemporal editing, Stone constructs an ingenious logic outside of organized time, displaying Bush’s tumultuous past before sprinting forward to expose the resulting psychological bruises in the present. The amorphous nature of the story functions like memory, spawning subplots and tangents from W.’s wandering mind, allowing the triggered emotions of the character to plot the story’s progression. Each recollection even bears the subjectivity of personal experience, building on the transitory state of the figureheads in the opening bureaucratic pow-wow, transforming their enlightened banter into a monotonous drone.
Their topical roundtable discussions, covering subjects as broad as warfare, recoverable oil and terrorism, carry the cadence of sports commentating, dually operating as satire of political gamesmanship and peak into Bush’s creature comforts. By repurposing combat as pastime, the chameleonic George is able to insert himself into his father’s milieu, fabricating a “forever war” to eclipse H.W.’s lack of long-term vision and cement his dedication to global democracy.
Stone often snickers at Bush’s attempts to proselytize in the name of freedom, backing each naive monologue with bursts of the “Robin Hood” theme or hints of Alan Jackson’s honky tonk. These knowing glances are meant to discredit the man, but it’s impossible not to be swayed by W’s sincerity, especially when channeled through Josh Brolin’s ebullient performance and in contrast to the duplicitousness of his cabinet. Stone even relents in the face of Bush’s demons, using a harnessed camera to capture the paralysis of alcoholism and visual symbolism to illustrate religion’s warm embrace, supplanting the judgmental eyes of the parent with a healing glimpse of the divine.
His strongest metaphor is also his most persistent, observed from the outfield of “Dubya’s” dreams. As the Texan ascends the ladder from businessman to governor to president, his slumber finds him shagging fly balls before an adoring crowd, acting as victor in a world outside of class and lineage. The film’s closing passage perverts this fantasy into an ironic nightmare of nonfulfillment, revealing a solitary man scouring an empty stadium, scrambling for a forthcoming triumph that will never descend into his open glove. It’s a disturbing closing chapter for the leader of the free world, exposing power as a paper tiger before the cerebral snare of parental expectation.
W. (Lionsgate Films, 2008)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Photographed by Phedon Papamichael