A week after Barrack Obama ushered in a new era in world politics, this trawl through the varied life of George W Bush is timely. Director Oliver Stone believes that, regardless of the mixed opinions of Bush, how he got to be president is an notable story unto itself. At first, he squandered his privileged circumstances, the film explores how he got it back and then what he does with it when he gets to the White House. It is Stone’s third presidential biopic – he previously explored the life and times of Richard M. Nixon where he presented an empathetic portrait of the man with Anthony Hopkins in the lead, as well as the assassination of Kennedy in JFK.
Stone’s goal was the same with W, to find the real man, with all of his foibles and strengths who made such an impact on the world. His choice of Josh Brolin as W was carefully chosen – himself the son of a famous Hollywood legend who has also lived a chaotic life until the age of 40 and his ultimate breakthrough in Hollywood with No Country For Old Men, The Valley Of Elah and American Gangster. For Stone, Brolin evoked the rural aspect of small-town America that Bush cultivated in Crawford, Texas. As an avowed Democrat, Brolin was initially suspect of the role: “The fact that Oliver was even seeing any kind of connection between me and Bush was slightly insulting,” he later recalled. Finding the spirit of George W Bush began with the walk and the talk – a John Wayne-style president with the true instinct of a politician despite his legendary impatience.
Casting his extended family of trusted advisors was equally crucial. Toby Jones plays Karl Rove, W.’s longtime advisor; Thandie Newton portrays Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Advisor; Scott Glenn plays Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Jeffrey Wright plays Secretary of State Colin Powell; Richard Dreyfuss plays Vice President Dick Cheney; and Dennis Boutsikaris plays Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense. As the architect of Bush’s two successful elections, Rove was known as ‘Bush’s brain’ – a relationship where the trusted advisor saw in Bush not just a potential leader but a complementary personality. Similarly, Glenn as Rumsfeld and particularly Dreyfuss as Cheney are excellent acting jobs – with the latter surely deserving of an Oscar nod next January.
Presenting the first half of the film around W’s early years of womanising, failed businesses and huge consumption of alcohol, Stone captures the early political education of the future president and his eventual success under the watchful guidance of Rove. As the son of a disapproving father and mother, (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn), Stone sketches some Freudian territory where W eventually discards his hell-raising to settle down with a prim librarian, Laura (Elizabeth Banks) to his eventual rebirth as an evangelical Christian and his rise to the governorship of Texas. Charting the September 11th attacks and his eventual pursuit of Saddam Hussein, the film, to its credit, avoids the cliché of pouring further scorn on a man who has become, by a huge margin, the least liked occupant of the Oval Office in history. Brolin plays Bush with gusto with a physical resemblance that is at times uncanny. In this momentus aftermath week of Obama’s success, W is a parable for our times of how power corrupts and how absolute power corrupts absolutely.