Among the series of advertisements for Oliver Stone’s W. is a poster that reflects how the overwhelming majority of Americans currently imagine their president. It shows Josh Brolin as George W. Bush seated at his desk in the Oval Office, his hands a hammock of fingers supporting a demoralized, hanging head, his face darkened by shadow. In light of the unfolding financial crisis—where Bush has failed to display even a modicum of fortitude in assuring a worried populace about their country’s economic institutions—the W. poster accurately captures the Commander-in-Chief as an overwhelmed shell of a leader, caught in the headlights of a disastrous history he himself has helped create.
Only a single scene in the actual film replicates this poignant evocation of the farcical tragedy that is its title character. Toward the end of W., as the Iraq War turns into an unmanageable, chaotic, and deadly occupation, Bush is asked at a press conference to evaluate any mistakes he has made since 9/11. Bush stumbles in coming up with his answer, transcribed verbatim from the real one given on April 13, 2004: “I don’t want to sound like I haven’t made no mistakes, I’m confident I have. It’s just that I haven’t—you really put me on the spot here, John. Perhaps I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one. But, uh . . .” Stone refuses to play the scene for laughs. Scanning around the room of dumbfounded reporters and nervous members of the president’s inner circle, the camera reminds us not only of Bush’s arrogant lack of introspection, but how it has been perceived. The public has wondered in amazement how such a man could have ascended to this level of power—and been left guessing as to whether Bush’s obliviousness might very well be a pandering put-on—while his enablers have just hoped he could fool enough people to keep the charade going until things somehow pan out.
Not coincidentally, this is the only scene in W. containing traces of the long dormant style Stone practiced in the Nineties, the height of his controversial career. When Bush hesitates, Stone cuts to inserts of the character at a different angle and in an even more desperate pose, a sort of dramatic magnification slightly outside the linear narrative action. It’s a minor echo of the signature aesthetic that has turned many off to Stone, especially his more bombastic forays into hallucinatory montage such as The Doors and Natural Born Killers, but it’s the aesthetic that brought a uniquely kinetic sensibility to his other historical biographies, especially Nixon. In their colliding of symbolic and atmospheric cutaways, newsreel footage, and dramatic reenactments these films created multi-sourced portraits as dense and exciting as peak Nicolas Roeg.
The rest of W., however, is shockingly flat, both in presentation and in insight. Click here to read the rest of Michael Joshua Rowin’s review of W.