November 9, 2008
George W. Bush: Political Punching BagBy Daniel Tauber
There was a time when people prayed for President Bush. But watching Oliver Stone's W., you would never know it.
Perhaps expecting anything else was naïve. I ultimately saw the movie only after glancing at a review in The National Review by Tom Hoopes, entitled, "Did W. Backfire?" Hoopes wrote that "despite the worst intentions of its makers," the film "succeeds in making George W. Bush more likeable." Apparently many reviewers felt the same, many of whom, Hoopes said "hated Bush going in - and kind of liked the guy when they came out."
Well those reviewers must have really-I mean really-not liked Bush going in. As for Hoopes, for him to think that anything in the movie made Bush look good is utterly self-deceiving. The film goes so far to make George W. Bush look bad that it makes George H.W. Bush - W.'s polar opposite - look good. It presents Bush and his administration in the way the Bush-haters can only imagine the administration could be.
W. only begrudgingly acknowledges that Bush has the capacity to touch people. Bush gets along with his friends. He is likable in an asinine jock sort of way. In one scene, Karl Rove tells Bush that he is likable, but does not have a single accomplishment to speak of.
The film American Dreamz, which was not kind to Bush, is more truthful about Bush's personal capacity for inspiring and connecting with others than W. There, George W. Bush, played by Dennis Quaid, is a judge in the season finale of an American Idol-type series. When a suicidal young veteran who caught his fiancée cheating on him threatens to blow himself up along with the studio audience, Bush attempts to convince him not to. As Bush talks, Dick Cheney, played by William Dafoe, says to himself in the background, "That's my guy."
W. is much less kind. Bush's sole motivation in the film is not to do right for his country, but merely to show his father that he can make something of himself to prove worthy of the Bush name. Bush cares more about his dogs than anything else.
Everything Bush says sounds Neanderthalic. The camera excruciatingly zooms up on Bush's mouth while chewing too many times to count.
In one scene, Bush visits a wounded soldier whose legs have been amputated and has a hard time speaking. Bush callously puts a tacky bright yellow "Operation Iraqi Freedom" t-shirt over the soldier's chest. The soldier's wife stands silently looking down as if condemning Bush but too modest to say so.
A particularly offensive scene had Bush talking to Laura while sitting on the toilet and wiping himself (a partial wall thankfully blocked most of the view). Gone are the days when FDR was shot from the waist up - at least for a Republican president.
This caricature of Bush the simpleton, perhaps good enough to be your buddy, but certainly not Commander-in-Chief, colors the entire film. And that goes for every other member of the Bush team: they are all unbelievable caricatures of themselves.
Karl Rove is a small nerdy conniving weasel who can only live through Bush. He accidentally calls Bush senior "pappi" and W. tells H.W. that Karl "sometimes thinks he is me." In real life, however, Karl Rove is big and confident.
Condoleeza Rice is an automated yes-woman with a perpetual concerned look on her face.
Dick Cheney is an evil genius lurking in the shadows who manipulates Bush to implement his vision.
Donald Rumsfeld is insane.
Of course, Colin Powell is the righteous warrior and is the only person making rational arguments. He only gets on board the war to be a team player.
Aside from Powell, no one says anything that makes sense. Talking points and slogans that were actually used during press conferences as parts or summations of arguments are recited out of context in personal conversations or cabinet discussions. For instance, when discussing the opposition of France, Germany and Russia to the War in Iraq, Rumsfeld murmurs "old Europe." Twice, Bush randomly states, "I envision democracy erupting all over the Middle East,"* as if he believes revolutions will break out immediately upon Saddam's defeat. In a discussion with Cheney, Bush tells Cheney to stay quiet during meeting because "I am the decider."
Cheney speaks rationally, but he is evil. The result is that every argument put forward by the Administration for the War is simply ridiculous and invalid. Because slogans were used out of context, the characters themselves often don't even seem to believe their own words.
At the end of the film you'd be surprised to remember that we're actually winning in Iraq.
What made the film particularly lacking was that it skipped over the most important events in Bush's life: running for president in 2000 and leading the country honorably and inspiringly after 9-11. I remember people who mocked Bush's "stealing" the election later exclaiming "Thank God George Bush is president and not Al Gore."
The film omitted anything Bush ever did right -- things that defined who he was. In the film, Bush never gave a campaign stump speech, something he was particularly good at. Never shown was the famous scene of Bush at ground zero surrounded by firefighters and other rescue workers, declaring "I can hear you, and soon the whole world will hear you!"
While 9-11 didn't make the cut, Bush's choking on a pretzel did.
W. was fitting for the campaign season in which it was released - one in which Bush was a pariah. Bush's endorsement was anathema; Bush was conspicuously absent from the Republican National Convention - only appearing on a screen; Obama's primary rallying cry was that McCain would continue Bush's policies; and McCain's most memorable line was "I'm not George Bush."
It was refreshing, but more surprising that McCain had the political courage to open his nomination acceptance speech thanking "the president for leading us in those dark days following the worst attack on American soil in our history, and keeping us safe from another attack many thought was inevitable." That was the first and last good thing said about Bush over the campaign.
Oliver Stone, not running for election, didn't even have the political courage to include this fact in W.
So no, W. did not backfire. It made Bush look bad, really bad.
* This quote is based on memory of the film.