Sunday, November 9, 2008

Oliver Stone's Presidential Family Psychodrama: "W."

Oliver Stone's "W." avoids the loose relationship to historic truth that characterized "JFK" (1991) and adds more satire and psychology than one might expect. In doing so, it offers an engaging portrait of George W. Bush that's entertaining and insightful, even for those who disapprove of everything the 43rd president has done.

The film juxtaposes past and present, but never loses the narrative line. Bush, played by Josh Brolin, is shown as a college hell raiser and alcoholic who became a born-again Christian. His relationship with his father, the 42nd president George Bush, is the key to understanding his character. Bush knows that his father disapproves of his dissoluteness and favors his brother Jeb, who eventually becomes the governor of Florida. His insecurity isn't helped by the fact that his father is always there to bail him out of trouble and set him up in a succession of businesses.

As a politician, Bush has few ideas of his own and no sense of history. What he does have is a political adviser, Karl Rove, who tutors him in a few key conservative ideas as he launches his run for governor of Florida, reminding one of the coaching Sarah Palin must have received before debating Joe Biden. There's also Dick Cheney, who advocates invading Iraq in order to control that nation's oil and pushes the legal adoption of torture and the imperial presidency. As weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible justification for the war, are not found, Cheney cynically adopts the "building democracy" rationale. Finally, Bush has his handlers, who supply him with such made-for-TV sound bites as "axis of evil" and "shock and awe."

Iraq provides a landscape for Bush to outdo his own father's war there. Events spiral out of control in Iraq and Bush is left still yearning for his father's approval. He cuts a tragic, and within the context of the film, sympathetic figure. That's quite a feat on Stone's part: to evoke sympathy among viewers who see the Bush presidency and legacy of Iraq, Katrina, the economy and more as an unmitigated eight-year disaster.

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