Written by: Sal Crivelli, Special to CC2K
When I first learned there was going to be a film based on the life and presidency of George W. Bush, I wondered about the audacity of such a move. Clearly this was going to be an unfavorable account of one of the least popular Presidents in US History, and it would probably be released shortly after the titular character is out of actual Office. However, I was brought back to films like All the President’s Men, a film highlighting Nixon’s greatest embarrassment, shortly after the man retired from Office in disgrace. Still, in All the President’s Men, Nixon was this great, intangible opponent, unseen by either our protagonists or us, the audience. He was like Blofeld before his official reveal, secretly controlling the inner workings of the evil criminal organization SPECTRE. Except Nixon was President, which means SPECTRE is the United States. After reading the George W. Bush biopic, I’m not unconvinced scribe Stanley Weiser didn’t mean to give off the impression that the White House during W’s tenure as President wasn’t unlike that fictional, criminal empire. W is much deeper than most Bond films, however, and our current two-termed Blofeld is a much more interesting character than the one immortalized by Telly Savalas, Charles Grey, or even Donald Pleasence. I would go further in saying that the President We Love to Hate is in no way portrayed as an evil man, or even a bad one. Just flawed.
One of the first things we need to understand about W before proceeding further in this review is that this movie, like any Michael Moore documentary, uses facts and real-life references to drive home an interesting film. This is not, however, a true account of the life and times of George W. Bush. It uses elements from biographies, television, and firsthand accounts, but it is still fiction, and should be approached as such. I say this only because I know many people will watch this film when it hits, and they’ll feel they have a perfect understanding of the Why’s and How’s of the forty-third President of the United States. This is not the case. It is an interpretation of a character by the same name, who is guilty of performing many of the same things as our real-life counterpart. Weiser’s W is a flawed, hapless, sensitive, directionless man, like so many of us. While his actual Cabinet may lambaste the making and release of this film, it does cement a point our George W. Bush has been saying since his Governorship: Weiser’s (and soon, Oliver Stone’s) George W. Bush is one of us. This is a man with the same limitations, the same weaknesses, and the same longing for acceptance that we all feel from time to time. The difference is, this man is also the sitting President of the United States, and invaded a sovereign nation.
The story bounces between events leading up to the initial invasion of Iraq, and key moments in W’s young adult life. We’re privy to the early exploits of W as a pledge at Yale and many drunken exploits through proposals all the way to New Jersey. Throughout the story, however, there are two prevailing elements that drive every motivation W has: his inability to find a place for himself, and his crippling devotion to his father’s approval. These two elements drive every motion forward in the script, and claim responsibility for all of W’s brash, surprising, arguably criminal actions as President.
The cast of characters is consistent and familiar. However, there is little time spent to truly develop them as characters. Nay, they are more caricatures of their real-life counterparts. Whereas W and his father, Bush 41, are richly intriguing and enjoyably self-destructive, Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice are flat, bland, and barely escape the depth of an overly simplified Daily Show critique. For most people, however, this is duly deserved, and extremely appropriate. I find it sloppy, and support my overall issue with the script and film itself.
My issue with the film as a story is this: this movie cannot stand the test of time. Littered with pop-culturally iconic moments (Grammar problems, mispronunciation, pretzel choking), the script reads more like a dramatized recap of the past five years of Bush, with reflections on key moments in the 80’s and 90’s to help legitimize his ascension to power.
Were this a fictional account of a modern President who grew from a frat boy with insecurity issues, no one would buy it. Its sound bites and political clips only resonate because we remember them, not because they’re politically interesting. Remember when they marketed and sold the Bill Clinton Deposition tape? How many people are rushing out to buy it now? I submit it is because nobody cares whether they remember it or not. It’s old news!
The true meat and potatoes of this script lie in the moments where W is not in the public eye. Those private moments when he meets his wife and (un-charismatically) woos her. Or the moment when he is visited by his father moments before his Governorship inauguration, only to have to read the man’s words of encouragement for him in a note his father wrote and handed to him, because he was incapable of articulating his feelings.
There is a running theme between the two W dogs, the elderly, doddering, outgoing Spaniel, “Spot,” and the younger, impetuous Scottish terrier pup, “Barney.” Throughout the film, Spot grows more blind and incapable, while Barney seizes each opportunity to gobble up his predecessor’s food. One could make the analogy that Spot represents not only his aging father, but also another former President: Bill Clinton. Spot grows weaker toward the end of her term, while Barney comes charging in, eager to consume her natural surplus of doggie chow. While heavy-handed at times, if played at subtlety, this running visual fits the tone of the film.
These are the moments where W works. The script is book ended quite nicely, and makes some broad assumptions about its protagonist. Though, in spite of its liberties and overly generalized perspective of key Cabinet members (except Colin Powell, who shares a truly excellent exchange with Cheney toward the end of the film, I might add), at the core we have an introspective narrative about a man who is never truly sure what kind of man he wants to be, desperate for structure and the wisdom to support his self-perceived decisiveness. However, after the initial buzz of W has subsided, I would not be surprised to find W for sale in the $5.99 bin at Wal Mart by the middle of our next President’s first term.