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Revisiting Hours: ‘W.’ and the Age of Incompetence

Tim Grierson on the original Dubya-era biopic, and how Oliver Stone captured Bush II’s art of failing up

Josh Brolin as President George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's "W." 2008

Josh Brolin as President George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's 'W.'

Emperor Motion Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock

Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours“— consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week’s edition: Tim Grierson on Oliver Stone’s 2008 Presidential biopic W.

George W. Bush loved baseball. Long before he ran for president, the man’s greatest aspiration was to become commissioner of Major League Baseball. It’s quite conceivable that he’d been pretty good at the job — after all, he’s a charming, personable guy, blessed with a common touch that would have made him popular with fans, players and management alike. And because he’s such a devotee of the game, he’s no doubt is familiar with one of the sport’s most lasting truisms: The ball will find you. For the uninitiated, the expression means that no matter how good a player is offensively, their defensive liabilities will be exposed eventually. A manager can try to tuck that player far away in left field or at first base, hoping that nobody will hit in his direction. But such strategies are futile. Sooner or later, that player will have to field his position — and then his shortcomings will be revealed for all to see, usually at the worst times.

There’s a prevailing, comforting narrative — both in American life and at the movies — that all of us will rise to the occasion. Sure, we may be screw-ups and failures, but really we’re all just one dramatic, high-pressure scenario away from becoming heroes, right? When the time comes, we’ll find the greatness within ourselves. Rocky will end his days as a lovable bum and seize the heavyweight crown. Prince Hal will stop being a drunken wretch and become the noble Henry V. And George W. Bush, after wasting his life on women, substances and bad career choices, will grow up, assume his family birthright and become the president the country needs after the tragedy of 9/11.

Turns out, that narrative doesn’t always come true. The ball will find you.

What’s endlessly poignant about W., Oliver Stone’s conflicted biopic about our 43rd president, is that it sees Bush’s life as a tragedy … but not his tragedy. Released in the waning months of Bush’s second term (and with Obama’s election on the horizon, a repudiation of Dubya’s administration), the film is a mixture of anger, compassion and befuddlement at the man who got us into the mess we have yet to extricate ourselves from. No doubt many assumed that Stone, the scourge of the American right, would eviscerate someone who was largely considered a buffoonish malapropism master and national punch line. Instead, the director looks at him as symptomatic of a general failing with this country. This Dubya is a classic redemption story just waiting for his moment. And then, unfortunately, his moment comes.

W. cast Josh Brolin to play Bush, chronicling his drunken misadventures at Yale, his failed early stab at running for office, his later embrace of born-again Christianity, his years as governor of Texas and his election as President of the United States. There’s a heavy emphasis on the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, too. At a time when most everyone could do a Bush impression — guided by Will Ferrell’s squinty-eyed, bulldozing-confident dumb guy from Saturday Night Live — it seemed odd that Brolin didn’t lean into the man’s heh-heh jokiness. But what’s even clearer now than during the film’s October 2008 release is that Stone and Brolin weren’t after caricature. Their Bush isn’t very bright; he misspeaks flagrantly and would rather be watching sports than worrying about affairs of state. But he’s also imbued with a touchingly naïve belief in his own future greatness. And by exploring both where that belief came from and what drove it, Stone’s biopic demonstrates the full measure of how one man’s overconfident view of his potential doomed the rest of us.

Working with Wall Street co-writer Stanley Weiser, the filmmaker fashioned a similarly fraught father-son relationship. The Dubya we meet early on is a party guy who’s acting out because his dad, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), doesn’t take him seriously — he’s far more proud of the studious, responsible younger brother Jeb. The prodigal son’s inability to please his dad becomes the motivating factor for much of what he does in W., and whether or not you believe that was true of the real George W. Bush, in Stone’s film it makes for a convenient, almost pathetically plausible explanation. Plus, that character dynamic plays into fiction’s grand tradition of complicated father figures and the wayward, tormented sons who cannot overcome them. Still, Bush was no Hamlet or Michael Corleone. The movie doesn’t need Farrell’s spot-on mimicry. Brolin’s constipated, flustered looks are all that’s necessary to articulate the there that’s not there beneath this dim man’s surface.

This wasn’t the first time Stone focused his attention on a Republican president. In 1995’s hallucinatory, obsessive Nixon, he studied a power-hungry, deeply insecure politician whose brilliant maneuvering could not overcome his ethical lapses and moral shortcomings. The director seemed to recognize something within himself in that disgraced leader: the oversized ego, the crippling rage, the lethal me-against-the-world mindset. No wonder Anthony Hopkins’ Tricky Dick felt legitimately haunted, as if Stone was spooked by how much he identified with a sworn enemy.

Anyone expecting anything so hyperbolic from W. was greeted, instead, with a muted origin story of a mediocrity. But muted isn’t the same as toothless. Indeed, the movie is, in part, a critique of the corrosive properties of privilege — about how a little shit born into a rich, well-connected family can fail upwards until he finally finds something he likes. “We’re not the Kennedys,” George H.W. Bush upbraids his son after his latest man-child shenanigan, aghast that Dubya would dare turn the Bush family name into a synonym for spoiled excess. It’s one of this film’s darkest jokes — and it’s turned on the audience. Long before we became a nation obsessed with sequels and reboots, we were already pledging allegiance to franchises like the Kennedys and the Bushes and the Clintons. W. is our version of those blueblood costume dramas where a rotten king sits lazily on his throne, a worthless heir to a once-proud legacy now curdled.

The film’s anger extends to the supporting performances. Some of the actors playing Bush’s trusted advisors impersonate their characters’ tics. (Thandie Newton’s depiction of Condoleezza Rice as a sycophantic lackey is remarkably, hilariously snotty — it remains one of the cruelest depictions of a real person in recent film history.) But unlike the forthcoming Vice, where a close adherence to mannerisms and body language is meant to suggest a penetrating insight into their personal character, W. focuses on essence. That’s never truer than with Richard Dreyfuss’ portrayal of Dick Cheney, who comes across as a cunning manipulator pulling the strings in the shadows. Stone imagines the behind-the-scenes White House conversations that drove the country toward war. This is no confederacy of dunces, however. Rather, it’s a collection of egoistical, ambitious individuals being led by a man who sees 9/11 as his chance to do some good in the world — if only he had sterner stuff within him.

This treatment of a sitting POTUS was met with mixed reviews, critics disappointed by Stone’s generally restrained treatment. The film wasn’t a rollicking satire or a vicious takedown, and it didn’t have the amped-up fervor of a typical Oliver Stone joint. So what was the point, exactly? A decade later, it now reads as a melancholy rebuttal to the myth of American greatness. W. isn’t Nixon because Dubya wasn’t Tricky Dick — there’s an inescapable smallness to this movie that’s appropriate for the man and his diminished times.

As we settle into the darkness of the Trump years, it’s tempting to look back at George W. Bush’s presidency with a warped fondness: Sure, that guy was bad, but at least he wasn’t pure evil. And it’s not hard while watching W. to feel bad for George W. Bush — even Stone encourages that stance. “It’s possible that I was angrier when I was younger,” the Oscar-winner said when the movie was released. “I think a function of getting older is that you figure out more and you become more compassionate toward everybody … I think that compassion is the key because in a movie, you have to relate to the person you’re telling the story about.”

This, ultimately, is Bush’s cursed legacy. Brolin captures all that’s relatable about him — that lovable-goofball demeanor that makes his future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) fall for the lug. George W. Bush isn’t evil. But there are fundamental qualities that are missing inside him: the skill to transcend his limitations, an ability to rise to the challenge. He never could find it. America needed a transformational leader in the wake of 9/11. All we got was a charmer who just so happened to be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths of Americans and Iraqis.

W. is interspersed with scenes of Bush all alone on a baseball diamond. The seats are empty. The roar of an invisible crowd, all those phantom triumphs this president sought all his life, loud in his ears. As W. ends, a fly ball is hit his way. Bush, the ace athlete, puts out his glove to catch it. To his bewilderment, the ball never comes down. It’s too late to be the hero, Dubya. The ball already found you.

Previously: Blue Collar

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