The film is far from flattering but at the same time far from being an all-out ‘shock and awe’ attack on Dubya the man. Flashing back and forth between his early life and his first term in office, the film presents an image of a man whose early life lacked any real direction and meaning, been played out in the shadow of a former president former war hero father, a more academically minded and capable brother, and a variety of former presidents that he either wanted to emulate (Reagan) or wholly despised (Clinton). In one particular scene, whilst eating a sandwich and speaking with his mouth full – a recurrent image throughout the film – Dubya is shown bragging to Dick Cheney about how his running time has improved since the Afghanistan invasion and how it is far better than that of Clintons.
Constructing a picture of a man who drank too much, partied too hard and was unable to hold down any work in his younger years – despite numerous opportunities being presented to Bush Jnr through the stringsbeing pulled by his father, Bush Snr – Dubya is shown to always be struggling under the weight of expectation and the fact that he achieved little on his own. A telling scene is when a drunken Dubya comes home having celebrated his success at getting a place in Harvard Business School. As Jeb Bush informs his angry father that Dubya was drunk because he’d finally proven to his father that he could make it on his own, once Dubya leaves the room Bush Snr turns to the former First Lady, Barbara, and asks her how she thinks he was able to get into the School?
In another scene, the relationship between father and son is shown in all its hideous glory, Dubya describing his father as: “Mr Perfect. Mr War Hero. Mr Fucking God Almighty”.
Later scenes – having by-passed 9/11, the start of the ‘War on Terror’ and beginning with the Dubya’s preparation for his ‘Axis of Evil’ speech – show Bush Jnr preparing to invade Iraq at any costs, at times being little more than a mouth-piece for those such as Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Interestingly, a number of scenes show Dubya reminding those around him that he’s the President, asking Cheney in one to tone things down in public meetings and in another, reminding political advisor ‘Brother’ Karl Rove that it is he that is the President.
Different parts of Dubya’s character are called into question as the film’s narrative unfolds:
His being ‘born-again’ as a Christian is followed shortly by a scene where he is trying to encourage his father to also become ‘born-again’ for political gain. When he calls upon his minister to tell him that he has ‘heard the calling’ to run for President, the minister is shown raising an eyebrow.
After speaking to Jacques Chirac, Bush explodes to Condoleezza Rice how he’d like to stuff a plate of ‘freedom fries’ down his throat.
On his decision to give up sweets, Dubya announces that it was his ‘personal sacrifice’ to show support for American troops in Iraq.
Elsewhere, other scenes show the President offering various nuggets of ‘Dubya-speak’. Whilst fewer than anticipated, one that sticks in the mind is of Bush warning those around him that others should not ‘mis-underestimate’ him.
In terms of Britain, the film presents a quite damning perspective on the importance afforded to both Blair and British troops in the ‘War on Terror’. Whilst Blair gets one scene where he is shown bullied and impotent alongside a Dubya that had already agreed a date for the invasion of Iraq, the only other significant reference to the role of Britain comes during a meeting of the US ‘Iraq War’ Cabinet. Discussing how the coalition is made up of around 40+ countries that included the ‘Australians, Spanish and Portuguese’ one of the Cabinet reminds Dubya how the Mongolians were also on board – ‘they don’t have a military but are good at wrestling’ – as indeed were the Moroccans. When asked what the Moroccans were offering, Rice replies that they have offered monkeys that are trained to locate and set off landmines. As Dubya smiles and states that ‘we should get ourselves some of them’, the scene ends with an invisible voice reminding everyone: ‘don’t forget, there’s also the British’.
With a back catalogue of such films as ‘Natural Born Killers’, it is unsurprising that some of Stone’s imagery and symbolism is a little heavy-handed. In one scene where the Bush Cabinet are discussing the ‘axis of evil’ and the use of ‘shock and awe’, they are shown walking through the fields surrounding Camp David. As they find themselves lost having veered off of the main path, the increasingly sweaty Cabinet members are shown standing helpless in the middle of nowhere. Given that none of them can even muster a suggestion of where or how to get back, Dubya puts his faith in his dog and blindly offers to allow it to lead them all out of their created predicament. As an allegory for the way in which Bush lead the US into war in Iraq, the scene and its imagery were both uncomfortable and amusing.
A similar sense of being lost permeated much of the film particularly in the final scene. Having shown Dubya lose his way during a White House press conference in early 2004, Bush is shown having retreated to his personal quarters in the White House to watch a Texas Rangers game on television. As he downs another non-alcoholic beer, he lapses into his favourite dream where he himself is playing baseball for the Rangers. Hearing the crack of the bat hitting the ball, Dubya edges backwards as he looks up into the night sky for the ball to catch. Standing waiting, Dubya fails to locate the ball as it never comes down. A look of complete bemusement, confusion and an overwhelming sense of being lost on Dubya’s face is the lingering image left for the audience to reflect upon as the end credits begin.
Stone could have easily pilloried Dubya or made him into a figure of ridicule. Indeed there were a number of times when the watching audience burst into spontaneous laughter. But Stone prefers not to go down this route completely. Instead, he presents both an amusing and frightening biopic of the 43rd US President whose qualities, character and life you’d instantly dismiss were it not something that we had lived and experienced first hand. Angry, aggressive and always envious – as well as being uncultured, boorish and coarse – “W” does show Dubya to be a patriotic, driven man, one who not only wanted to exorcise his own demons but also those of his father before him: seeing the invasion of Iraq as being necessary to finish the job that his father started a decade or so before.
Questions will be asked about why the film has been made now, especially given that it didn’t go all out to kick Dubya when he was at his lowest ebb. Some will have wanted a more detailed analysis after a necessary period of reflection, some would have preferred a more damning assault on the antithesis of modern US arrogance. But as Stone has stated in an interview with The Scotsman, the time is – he believes – absolutely right:
This is an urgent situation…This man is not leaving in January. He’s with us: the Bush Doctrine is our foreign policy. [America] has built an empire. We’re spending a trillion dollars a year on the implements of war. You don’t spend that kind of money without using it. It’s getting us closer to the nuclear terror we felt in the 1950s. So that’s why I made it now. I wanted audiences to think about why we elected him, who he was and why we’re here now. That’s the best we can do as moviemakers: hold up a mirror to what’s going on now.
“W” is on general release in the UK from 7th November.
Everything on this site by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. www.chris-allen.co.uk.