Saturday, November 15, 2008

Oliver Stone's "W." Truth that's stranger than fiction...

It is said that every President of the United States has an idiot brother (think Roger Clinton) but with George W Bush he is the idiot brother. Oliver Stone, in his fine new biopic “W.”, has decided not to exaggerate the absurdities of America’s worst ever President – he doesn’t need to. The facts are far stranger than any fiction so what Stone does is hold a mirror up to the life of Dubya – it doesn’t need to be a distorting mirror either. We see, in flashback, the hard-drinking, womanising, and idle man that Bush was for most of the first forty years of his life. We see that his father “Poppy” (Ugh!) had constantly to bail him out when he got in trouble and to use his influence to try and get the wayward son advantages, including a place at Harvard. We see the positive influence that the saintly Laura (engagingly played by Elizabeth Banks) had on him and, crucially, the born again moment when he finds God and forsakes alcohol guided by an evangelical preacher. And we see in sharp relief what is perhaps the principal theme of the film – the uneasy father/son relationship between America’s 41st and 43rd Presidents. George H.W. Bush clearly, and understandably, had scant regard for his eldest son for the first three or four decades of the latter’s life. Indeed it is on record that the Bush political dynasty was not supposed to be furthered at all by the wayward Dubya but by the more stable and reliable younger brother Jeb. George W Bush knew this, of course, and the film credibly suggests that one of his prime motivations was to prove his father wrong – first by getting elected as Governor of Texas and then more improbably as President.

In sticking with the known facts about the life of Bush Oliver Stone has not just avoided any possible libel suits but has made an even more chilling film about this accidental President. He avoids showing the accident actually happen, no Florida count stalemate, hanging chads and Supreme Court deliberations are in the film. The fact that Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote in 2000, and almost certainly won Florida as well and should have been President, is ignored – and rightly so. This is a film about the personal inadequacies of Bush, but also about his extraordinary luck. His luck in having a rich and influential father. His luck in finding a calm and tolerant wife. And especially his luck in surrounding himself with clever people who not only got him to the White House but kept him there. The fact that these clever people were mostly evil and dysfunctional was in the end Bush’s downfall but more importantly it brought the world into turmoil and the Presidency into disrepute. That Bush will leave office without a word being said in favour of anything that he did in his malignant eight years is in part a fact of Bush’s weakness and lack of fitness for high office – but it is also directly a consequence of the disastrous choices he made for his cabinet.

The malign influence of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and the rest of this disreputable team is excellently shown in “W.”. Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Cheney is a masterpiece – an impersonation so accurate and so scary that it made me feel that we can only hold our breath and hope that nothing happens before President Obama’s inauguration on 20th January 2009. Don’t count on it with this malevolent man still around! Cheney’s call for a new American imperialism with the Stars and Stripes littered across the map of the Middle East and the Caspian region was shown vividly in the movie - as was his call for American control of the massive energy resources of this part of the world. If there were still any doubters around that the grab for oil and gas was a prime driver of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and of the so-called “war on terror” then Cheney’s chilling Power Point presentation on the subject in W. will have silenced any such doubts.

The portrayal in W. of two people at the two ends of the moral spectrum was crucial to the story – and to the unfolding of the disaster that was George Bush’s presidency. Early in his emerging career as a politician Dubya was spotted and adopted by the Machiavellian and ruthless and connivingly clever Karl Rove. Rove was as smart as Dubya was dumb and we see this both from the way that Rove gave Bush the words and the bullets and how Bush blustered and stuttered when Rove wasn’t around directly to pull the strings – most memorably in a press conference in April 2004. Bush is asked what lessons he had taken away from events since the Sept. 11 attacks. He shakes his head, looks quizzical and then says: “I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hasn’t yet.” Oliver Stone didn’t invent this – he didn’t need to. He just told it as it was – and the portrayal of Rove by the brilliant English actor Toby Jones is masterly.

The second of the two crucial characters, and in many ways the antithesis of the vile Rove, was Colin Powell who comes out of the movie with his reputation intact, except for his failure to stick to his obviously deep-felt (and right) view that the invasion or Iraq was both morally and militarily wrong. Powell knew that the justification for the war, the mythical “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, was specious. He also knew that whilst toppling Saddam would be a military cakewalk managing the post invasion world would be both dangerous and difficult. Unfortunately Powell acted not as the calming and intellectually robust Secretary of State that he could have been but as the über-loyal ex General that he was as well. Whilst he must have felt scant respect for the idiotic and ignorant gung-ho imperatives of his Commander-in Chief in the end his ingrained military loyalty made him hold his tongue. And the rest is history.

The damage that George W Bush has done to America’s reputation and the cataclysmic after-effects of his being in thrall to the neo-conservatives pulling his strings will probably not be banished for the first couple of years of Barack Obama’s presidency, but once again there is hope that a firm moral purpose will return to the governance of the United States of America. The Bush years will be seen as a malignant blot on the good name of America – and Oliver Stones’ excellent movie “W.” will help future generations understand why it all happened. Essential viewing for all.


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