“W.”: History Written by the Losers

Oliver Stone’s two hour lampoon of President George W. Bush failed to leave a lasting legacy.

Written by Stanly Weiser and directed by Oliver Stone, W. (2008) was meant as a final middle-finger to the outgoing Bush Administration; an attempt in film to solidify negative public perceptions surrounding President George W. Bush and the Iraq War. But years later, W. looks more like a relic of its time; a forgettable albeit slightly humorous political drama by filmmakers who accidentally made their subject a sympathetic figure.

W. intercuts between George W. Bush’s ne’er-do-well youth and his presidency, particularly the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Events surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are glaringly absent. How can you make a film about George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House without mentioning September 11? Probably because he received the highest recorded presidential approval rating in history after the 9/11 attacks, and the filmmakers didn’t want to remind the audience about the tremendous crisis his administration had to face.

The film opens with a young-ish George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) getting hazed in a Yale fraternity. He jumps from job to job, to the great disappointment of his stern father, President George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), until he meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks). With the help of political strategist Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Bush becomes Governor of Texas, and later, President of the United States, where he uses his office to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, something his father never achieved.

The filmmakers use real quotes and incidents to portray George W. Bush as a comedic figure, including one incident in which he almost died choking on a pretzel. In hindsight this comes across as mean spirited, since Josh Brolin’s Bush is sincere in his religious convictions, appears to genuinely believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and wanted the public to be on board with the war, and is constantly frustrated by his disapproving father. As National Review’s Tom Hoopes pointed out, this had the unintended consequence of making Bush relatable and sympathetic to the audience.

The real George W. Bush was born in Connecticut in 1946 but grew up in Texas. He graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s in History and later attained an MBA from Harvard Business School. He is a reformed alcoholic and avowed Christian who once got a DUI. He was a Lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard, Governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, and 43rd President of the United States from 2000 to 2008. As President, he presided over the Global War on Terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite high approval ratings in his first term, he left office deeply unpopular

Though this film selectively recounts events from Bush’s life, some of the more surprising scenes are accurate. A drunken Bush really did challenge his father to a fight, and he once crashed his car into a garage after his wife chided him for a lousy speech. He really did choke on a pretzel and land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. W. rips dialog from actual statements and speeches, including a liberal dose of Bush’s linguistic foibles.

The filmmakers stray into the realm of conspiracy theories, however, when it comes to an alleged relationship as a young man. In the film, Bush drunkenly proposes to a girlfriend in a bar and later his father tells him he’ll “take care of the girl.” It’s never mentioned again. Bush did have a fiance before meeting Laura, but allegations that he got a woman pregnant and arranged for an abortion came from pornographer Larry Flint. Even the National Enquirer couldn’t find any evidence for that story.

Before reviewing Vice (2018), a film about Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, I decided to go back and re-watch this film, to see how the two compare. Vice and W. are similar in their portrayals of their respective protagonists. Both Bush and Cheney overcame alcoholism and directionless youth and rose to political prominence with the help of a faithful wife. Both films use personal moments (including bathroom scenes) to humanize (some would say humiliate) them. Where Vice portrays Cheney as a devoted family man, however, W. focuses on Bush’s struggle with his father and omits his daughters entirely.

Vice confronts 9/11 head on, and uses Cheney’s response, and his infamous order to shoot down any remaining hijacked aircraft, to illustrate his rise to power. In contrast, W. only briefly mentions this defining moment of the Bush Administration. Where Vice concludes the Iraq War was an overreaction to the 9/11 attacks, W. contends it was an attempt by President Bush to prove he could do something his father could not. Vice simply tackles its subject better, with more authentic performances by its cast. By all accounts, Vice is the superior film.

W. landed with mixed reviews and currently holds a 58% positive rating from critics and 42% audience favorability on RottenTomatoes. It grossed a respectable $29.4 million on a $25 million budget. The problem with W. lies in its cast’s subpar performances and its adherence to information and events that were already in the public eye. Do we really need to watch reenactments of scenes that already played out on our televisions and are readily accessible online? W. failed to bring anything new or interesting to the screen.

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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