W.: History and Psychology from Oliver Stone

Culture Watch

Mr. Toplin is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. He has published a dozen books, included the edited work, Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (2000).

Oliver Stone’s W. has received considerable praise in the national media for offering a surprisingly complex and rather sympathetic portrait of the adult life of George W. Bush (Stone calls the cinematic treatment “empathetic” rather than sympathetic). Commentators note that, while Stone frequently goes over the top in rendering political judgments through his movies, he exercised impressive restraint when making W. The result, they say, is a “balanced” portrait, one that reveals Bush’s endearing qualities as well as his negative characteristics.

Even though Stone tries to make Bush “human,” as the director describes the intent, his movie’s overall impact is also to make audiences wonder how a man with so many personal foibles ever got to become president of the United States. In the final scene of the movie, a symbolic, dream-like sequence in which a dazed-looking Bush fails to retrieve a baseball in the outfield, Stone reminds audiences that this ordinary and flawed individual exemplifies the Peter Principle – the idea that people often climb to the level of their incompetence. Viewers, who are focused on the movie at that moment, are likely to feel sorry for the troubled protagonist, but upon further reflection they may feel sorry for the nation, as well.

 Some viewers will consider a larger implication. W. places considerable blame for mistakes of the Bush era on the President, who viewed complex matters simple-mindedly, and the film also attributes responsibility to manipulative and ambitious men around the President, such as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Yet the subtle, unexamined message of Stone’s thought-provoking drama is that culpability for the mess created by the Bush administration stretches past the offices of Bush, Rove, Cheney, and other figures at the White House. W. leaves audiences wondering: Why did so many Americans fail to recognize the shortcomings of George W. Bush over two presidential elections? Much of the evidence presented in Stone’s disturbing portrait was available to the American people before the 2000 campaign and, especially in terms of bad decisions at the White House, in the months before the 2004 contest. Yet Bush and his political team pulled off victories (although the 2000 contest was sharply disputed, and Al Gore received more popular votes). In the movie Bush (played by Josh Brolin) stumbles over the familiar proverb “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” and thoughtful viewers will ask why lots of Americans were fooled twice when judging character and leadership at election time.

Stone attempts to make sense of George W. Bush’s life by crafting a psycho-drama. He traces a good deal of the man’s behavior to a strained relationship with an imposing and disapproving father, George H. W. Bush. At several points in the story James Cromwell, playing the senior Bush, says, in one way or another, “You disappoint me, Junior.” George W. is the black sheep in a distinguished family, which includes a grandfather who was U.S. senator from Connecticut. Stone shows W as a frat brat at Yale, a carousing skirt-chaser in Texas, and a failure in various employments. George W. seems addicted to beer. At various points in W’s career his father exercises influence to lift him out of trouble or provide new career opportunities. Eventually, W discovers Jesus and Laura Bush. He gives up alcohol and tries to reform his life. Above all, he seeks approval from his judgmental father, who favors his brother. As President, W attempts to finish a job his father was reluctant to do in the Gulf War by destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Many of Stone’s movies present criticisms of the Vietnam War (such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK), and Stone musters similar criticisms of the Iraq War in the current film. When portraying debates about military action involving George W. Bush and his advisers, Stone shows that most members of the foreign policy team were blissfully confident about their poorly informed assumptions. Stone lets General Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) articulate doubts about the evidence of WMDs. The director acknowledges that this clash of opinions is exaggerated for dramatic effect to some extent, and he shows that Powell eventually has to accept the decision of his Commander in Chief.

Near the end of the film, it becomes evident that many of the assumptions that led to war were terribly wrong. “Where the hell’s the WMDs at?” a distressed President asks. “How could our Intel people completely muff this?” In this moment, Bush sounds like Lyndon B. Johnson in Laurence Luckinbill’s one-man stage impersonation. In that play LBJ asks how the advisers could have been so wrong in confidently counseling action in Vietnam. Stone’s movie shows Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) providing a striking judgment about the value of U.S. presence in Iraq. It is the only point in the film where Stone boldly considers conspiracy theory. He allows Cheney to voice excitement about an opportunity for grabbing control of oil production in the Middle East and dominating the region’s politics. When the subject of exiting Iraq comes up, Cheney maintains, “There is no exit strategy. We stay.”

Oliver Stone worked arduously to get this film to market prior to the elections. Just a few months before the movie’s release, he was enlisting the cast and adjusting the script. Stone rushed through post-production at a clip that is unusual for a Hollywood production. Whether the director thought his movie could make an impact on the 2008 presidential election is unclear. He realized, however, that this movie would likely attract more public interest before the vote of November 4 redirected public attention to activities of the president-elect.

Several movie critics agreed with Newsweek’s reviewer David Ansen that it was “too early” to render cinematic judgment on Bush and his leadership. The ink was hardly dry on this recent history, they argued. Did Stone’s historical analysis come 15 years too early, asked Ty Burr in the Boston Globe? These critics worked under the mistaken assumption that historians sort things out over the years and eventually achieve consensus when interpreting people and events. Professional historians know that this expectation is illusory. Debates continue for decades, even centuries, giving scholars plenty of opportunities to advance their careers by tweaking interpretations. It seems unlikely that many historians will be arguing in 2050 that George W. Bush was a successful president, but they will probably be arguing intensely about the motivations of Bush and his advisers. Towards that analysis, Oliver Stone has delivered a provocative, imaginative, and intriguing rough draft.

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Lou McDade - 11/5/2008

Good evening,
The most important and most difficult thing to do in regards to absorbing Oliver Stone's "W" is to try and remove personal emotion from what you're about to see and try to remain as objective as possible.
Empathatic is definitely the apt term to use in regards to how "I" felt about President Bush after viewing the film. In the film, "W" seems as reluctant to take on responsibility as much as he is determined to impress and please his father.
What disturbed me the most is how someone with such a lack of knowledge AND interest about national and world affairs along with such a poor command of the enlgish language could obtain such a position.
The current electorate has witnessed this with regards to Governor Sarah Palin. She appears to be the female version of "W". The election of Barrack Obama was a referendum on the current administration and also a message to future campaigns that Americans have had enough of inept leadership.

Raul A Garcia - 10/31/2008

Movies and directors take plenty of license with reality- the danger is that the public may regard the finished product as such. Mr. Stone should hardly be the only judge and jury of a person or event. His infatuation with Fidel Castro (Spielberg is another casualty) is testament to lack of objectivity- an earlier generation spoke of Josef Stalin as "Uncle Joe" and perhaps others found Hitler "cute", but to partly or fully demonize the current president while praising real dictators bears mentioning. I did not particularly enjoy "JFK" and the only other film directed by him; I have actually walked out of some movies I found bad. Enjoy the popcorn.