Oliver Stone’s biopic of George W. Bush has some interesting elements to it, but overall didn’t win me over. So I’ll give it a narrow thumbs down.
At times W. seems to be an attempt at a serious historical biography, at times it’s exaggerated to the point of satire, and at times it’s mediocre, biased political propaganda.
I was most drawn in by the part about his earlier life, as well as the very beginning of his presidency when we’re first introduced to the White House characters.
The young Bush is presented as a not entirely unlikable boob. He’s often drunk, he can be obnoxious, but he doesn’t seem like a particularly bad person. You could see him maybe one day being qualified to be an assistant manager at a K-Mart, if he matures a bit and keeps the drinking under control.
Some of the characters in the movie look uncannily like they’re supposed to, and some decidedly do not. In the former category I’d put Dick Cheney (it didn’t even dawn on me that that was Richard Dreyfuss until well into the movie) and Condoleeza Rice. In the latter category I’d put Colin Powell and the elder George Bush.
The characters around Bush tend to be even less sympathetic than him. I really don’t know enough about the inner workings of that White House to say if these portrayals are basically accurate but just simplified and exaggerated a bit for effect, or are mostly politically motivated fantasy.
Rice comes off particularly poorly, as a pathetic suck up who is in over her head almost to the degree that Bush himself is. The supremely confident Cheney is contemptuous of all around him, including Bush.
Powell, on the other hand, is shown voicing many of the antiwar arguments that were proven correct by later events, so arguably he’s the hero of the film. That depends, though, on what you make of the “good soldier” routine, where one opposes something in one’s mind and behind closed doors, but when push comes to shove one is out there advocating it and pursuing it to the best of one’s ability. Did Powell have a duty to do more to oppose that war once he lost the argument in the White House?
Like I say, Bush himself is depicted as more buffoonish than evil, just an ordinary, rather crude guy. Even allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration, it’s quite the indictment of democracy.
Throughout history, the majority of American presidents, and likely the majority of elected officials in general, have been either simpletons or knaves, and sometimes both. Maybe on average not quite as bad as Bush, but pretty darn bad. It’s no hyperbole to say that if people had instead been picked at random to govern, the world would have been better off.
Incidentally, whatever you can say good or bad about Obama, he’s not an embarrassment like Bush. Bush brought democracy’s already low average down a bit more; Obama bumped it back up by a similar increment.
In the end there are simply too many weak points to W. for me to recommend it. Much of the Iraq War portion of the movie drags. I could have done without Stone the amateur psychologist attributing much of Bush’s character and behavior to unresolved, simplistic “daddy issues.” It was a low blow to go for cheap laughs by working into the movie all of Bush’s best known verbal gaffes. (So the guy can be a little tongue tied or misspeak more than the average public figure. That’s always struck me as one of the least significant of his flaws.) The scene where Bush visits wounded soldiers and is treated as pathetic by them and their families comes across as preaching to the choir of Bush haters in the movie audience rather than something that would happen in real life, where people tend to be too overawed by the office if not the man to openly disrespect the president in such a way.
A near miss.