The postman brought me the movie W. from Netflix today. It has to be Oliver Stone’s best film in years. It’s much more a straight biography than I expected. It isn’t a polemic and it isn’t played for laughs. But it isn’t a whitewash either. I’m sure that Bush’s hardcore supporters will find plenty to dislike but as far as being a movie biography it’s an entertaining and engrossing look at one of the most important and divisive presidents in history.
Much of the credit goes to the cast. Josh Brolin is simply spot-on in the lead role. So much so that while looking away from the screen during one of the documentaries included in the supplemental materials I was surprised to look back and find it was actual film of President Bush rather than a scene from the movie that I was hearing. Richard Dreyfuss is the second immediate standout as Cheney. He underplays, as does most of the cast. It’s a good choice. The public personas of most of these people are so cartoonish that had they been played as broadly as they appear on Meet the Press the movie would have quickly devolved into caricature. Dreyfuss is arguably a more believable Cheney than Cheney is. I never got the idea that Dreyfuss was auditioning for the role of the Penguin in the next Batman movie, while I always got that feeling from the actual vice-president. Toby Jones, who is fast becoming one of the finest character actors working today, is somehow sympathetic as Karl Rove. Thandie Newton might brush more closely against that cartoon boundry, but again, the actual Condoleezza Rice is such a cartoon that to do anything less might have rendered the character unrecognizable. As it is, I defy you to recognize her from other things you might have seen her in- INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, CRASH, or MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II. If you saw JEFFERSON IN PARIS you might recognize her as Sally Hemmings but here she disappears into the role. Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld, Jeffery Wright as Colin Powell, Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, all are simply wonderful. Even the small roles stand out. Ioan Gruffudd, Colin Hanks (son of Tom Hanks), and even Daily Show alumni Rob Corddry never hit a wrong note in their brief time on screen. The only gripe I might have is with the portrayal of President George H. W. Bush by James Cromwell, who normally I find inimitably watchable. It’s not that Cromwell does a bad job as an actor, it’s just that every other person makes it a point to at least attempt to vanish into their well known roles and Cromwell doesn’t seem to even bother to try.
If the movie has an agenda, it only presents in subtle ways. I don’t for a minute think that Stone isn’t aware of these little digs but considering his reputation for bombast I’m still amazed at the restraint. The way Bush eats by stuffing his cheeks full and chewing with his mouth open, or cuts down a tree by sawing the chain saw back and forth (a good way to get your leg cut off), or considers confidence superior to ability. Especially revealing is the portrayal of Barbara Bush. Whitewashed and airbrushed the way the public personas of all the Bush family were, most people still think of mother Bush as being some sort of kindly grandmother. Only if you have done extensive reading do you start to realize what a vindictive, mean, aristocratic old bitch the portly matron actually was. Here you get just a hint but even that is such a rare glimpse into her real character that it is very telling.
All in all, the movie is one of the best of the last year. It keeps you watching, it tells you something you may not know, and it doesn’t stray too far from what seems to be objective (as far as such things go in the public forum) truth. Veracity is paramount if you’re going to make a biographical movie about a sitting president. Everybody knows how these people look and sound. Likewise, being careful not to take liberties with rumor or innuendo is very important. It could easily have been a hatchet job. The movie is anything but that. Instead it seems to give real insight into a man who changed the presidency and the country, who presided in a time of American crisis unknown in recent history.
“Faith frees me. From my past, myself, from the expectorations of others.”