Magazine article The New Yorker

Troubled Sons

Magazine article The New Yorker

Troubled Sons

Article excerpt

Oliver Stone's "W.," a dramatized portrait of a hollow shell named George Bush, is a discomforting experience for a lot of reasons, of which the most important, perhaps, is that Stone brings us in close to the President without giving us any reason to care about him. Back in 1995, Stone made us heed, even feel for, the tormented soul of Richard Nixon; the expanded director's cut of "Nixon" (recently released on DVD) looks stronger than ever as a portrait of an intelligent, capable man (Anthony Hopkins) rotting from the inside. In "W.," however, George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) comes off as a grinning frat boy who covers his easily bruised feelings with swaggering bravado. Even if the real Bush is as simple as that (which I doubt), he's still a lousy movie character--an inadequate protagonist in his own life story. Clinging to externals, Brolin thrusts out his chin and flexes his shoulders; he walks crotch forward, like a dismounted broncobuster; and he speaks in short gusts, as if each little group of words were a shot from a Colt .45. Brolin can't get below the surface, but I'm not sure that any actor could--the way the movie has been conceived, there are no depths to plumb. Stanley Weiser's screenplay hits the Freudian family-drama aspects of the Bush saga in the most obvious ways: the hard-drinking, pleasure-loving scapegrace son can never get enough approval from his stiff-jointed father, George Herbert Walker Bush (James Cromwell), who talks of the family tradition as if it were a bank vault the boy was robbing. Cut down by Poppy again and again, the young man somehow finds God, discovers ambition, and feels at ease, at last, as he redoes his father's Iraq war as a reckless adventure. What's missing from "W.," however--what would have made the movie fascinating and not merely a hammer blow to an already expiring Presidency--is the cunning that many have noticed in Bush. Despite his family's misgivings, the actual W. became both governor and President, whereas the man at the center of this movie strikes you as someone who could maybe get elected social director of a country club.

Stone sets Bush's upward progress in a double frame: the outer frame is Bush in a baseball cap walking in the empty outfield of the Texas Rangers' ballpark when he owned the club, in the nineteen-nineties. In his fantasies, vast crowds adore him. The inner frame is Bush the first-term President at work--a series of meetings, leading up to the Iraq invasion, and then its aftermath, with the ruling circle of Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), George Tenet (Bruce McGill), Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), and Karl Rove (Toby Jones). From the meetings, Stone jumps back to scenes of the President's young manhood--the sloshed fraternity initiation rites at Yale, a night in jail, fleeting jobs, much gambling and mashing of front lawns with cars. In the most effective of these moments, Bush meets the young librarian Laura Welch (Elizabeth Banks) at a Texas barbecue, and Stone, working with a handheld camera, gets an easy, flirtatious conversational rhythm going between the two. Bush is self-deprecating and rakish, and, for a moment, almost likable. Later, after endless guzzling of Jack Daniel's straight from the bottle, he is struck down by God during his daily three-mile run, and is born again. A wormy Karl Rove, alternating between flattery and contempt, teaches Bush what to say in public, and his political career takes off.

Why did Stone make the movie? He doesn't discover anything new. He and Bush are the same age (sixty-two), and they entered Yale at the same time (1964), but he feels no kinship with Bush, as he clearly did with the scuzzy but canny journalist Richard Boyle, in "Salvador" (1986), and with the embittered antiwar veteran Ron Kovic, in "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989). Cold disgust--unless it leads to comedy--is probably not the most productive attitude to maintain toward your leading character. …

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