Oliver Stone looked a bit jittery as he waded through a Westside theater in Los Angeles on Monday night, shaking hands with some of the agents and actors who turned out for a first look at "W," his biopic of President Bush due in theaters on Oct. 17.
"We just finished this week, and we’re pretty much on edge here," the director told the crowd, which included some of the cast, including James Cromwell, who plays George H.W. Bush; Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Dick Cheney; Scott Glenn, who plays Donald Rumsfeld; Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Tony Blair, and Josh Brolin, who plays the lead.
There is ample reason to be nervous, for over the next few weeks, "W" will be scrutinized and analyzed and dissected in a way Stone has not seen since "JFK." Coming out so close to the election, the gamble being taken by Stone and Lionsgate is that it is not too early to examine the Bush years even if it is still in its twilight.
That is what separates "W" from other presidential biopics, including Stone’s own "Nixon," released shortly after his subject had passed away, not during his term. The only thing that comes close to "W" is "Primary Colors," a thinly veiled satire on the Clinton years released in 1998 in the midst of the blooming Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was a box office disappointment.
At the event at the Landmark Theaters, Stone thanked an array of investigative journalists and columnists, including Jane Mayer, Bob Woodward, Michael Isikoff, and Frank Rich, for providing the source material for the script via what they have written in books and periodicals.
"I think there’s much more to come out, but there’s enough here to start," Stone said, before the lights went down.
What may surprise some people is that, given all the buildup, "W" is not an all together unflattering portrait of the 43rd president. It’s blistering in the decision to go to war in Iraq, yet sympathetic in that Bush himself did not have nefarious intentions. Moreover, we do see Bush visiting injured soliders, and showing at least some concern for civilian casualties in the Iraq invasion.
Those will be small concessions to Bush’s remaining base, given that the overall premise is that his presidency has been a failure.
Stone treats Bush’s own personal struggles as melodrama, and his penchant for dim-witted malaprops and neocon-fed decision-making with satire.
In one scene, Poppy Bush tells his hard-living son, " You’re not a Kennedy. You’re a Bush. Act like one."
In another, Cheney hands Bush authorization for the use of harsh interrogation techniques, which he is careful not to call torture, while Bush, gobbling a sandwich, just throws the document to the side and tells him he’ll "get to it."
And there’s the irreverent use of music. The shock-and-awe campaign that launched the war in Iraq is shown to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."
As Bush, Brolin is generally spot on, in appearance and manner. It’s hard not to chuckle at others in the cast, perhaps because these are figures still subject to "Saturday Night Live" treatment. When Bush flies off the handle because Brent Scowcroft has written an op ed opposing an Iraq invasion, Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) is so sycophantic you can’t help but be amused when she calls her former mentor “persona non grata.”
Even with the liberties it takes, I expected the movie to have a harder edge. I’ve seen more damning drama in the wave of Iraq-war documentaries, and more biting satire via Michael Moore.
Instead, this is a Bush in a lifelong effort to prove himself to his father, a rather detached patrician who saw Jeb as the family’s chosen one. W spends his youth as a screw up, a misdirected soul who can’t quite get his act together until he finds a spiritual conversion to give up liquor and lands the guidance of a dweebish whiz named Karl Rove.
Bush’s presidency in "W" is entirely framed by Iraq: The drumbeat of war, the decision to go and the ill-fated occupation that followed. Conservatives will complain that no mention is made of the surge and its success; liberals will cite Katrina and the financial meltdown.
Other than that, though, there are no "gotcha" revelations, just composited pictures of key moments. One of the more controversial ones is bound to be a pre-war meeting with Bush and his team, when they are laying out the rationale for going into Iraq. After an extended debate with Colin Powell, Cheney spells it out: It is a war for oil. He points to a map and expresses grand ambitions of world dominance, and to rid the world of bullies who would otherwise give the U.S. a hard time. It is Bush who will sell Iraq to the American people as a war for freedom.
The scene will rattle Bush adherents, but it will not shock anyone whose harbored a theory that Iraq was a war for oil.
(As for the election at hand, John McCain pops up just once. As Bush delivers his 2003 State of the Union address, and warns of Iraq’s efforts to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger, there’s a brief shot of the Arizona senator in the chamber, followed by other lawmakers. Barack Obama does not appear at all.)
With its sheen of satire, "W" is an effort to add some dimension to a president so often lionized or demonized. Stone’s Bush is at once a frat boy bumpkin, never learning to not eat and talk at the same time, who realizes he’s been duped when he’s told there really are no weapons of mass destruction.
The movie can make for an entertaining balance, but the risk for "W" may be beyond Stone’s control. It is that Bush is no longer a polarizing figure but an irrelevant one. Far from setting off fireworks, the worst thing that could happen is that the film won’t create much of a stir at all.