The recent controversy surrounding the nude paintings of Brian Cowen has led to quite a bit of discussion in the international media and online. If you want to sample some of this discussion, a comprehensive alphabetical list that links to dozens of online articles can be found at cearta.ie. With April Fools Day approaching, I enjoyed the artist’s prank, but was less convinced by the paintings’ satirical qualities. Of course, our Taoiseach is not the only international leader who has found himself in such a position. The incident reminded me of the far greater amount of public invective levelled at the former leader of the USA, George W. Bush. The release of Oliver Stone’s latest film on DVD gave me an opportunity to see how this American director would depict him in his biopic, W.
W. represents the third time that Oliver Stone has used an American president as the subject matter for a film following JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995). Bush was also the main subject of Michael Moore‘s documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Moore’s documentary was both successful and controversial as he critiqued the then US President and his policies. Stone has also garnered controversy due to his choices of subject matter and his blending of fact and fiction in his films concerning real people and events. Unlike Moore’s film, which portrayed Bush negatively, Stone’s film provides a more rounded version of the former American President.
The structure of the film is divided into a storyline set in the present intercut with flashbacks that chronicle the younger Bush’s formative years. The scenes set in the present deal with a single episode that takes place during Bush’s presidency: the war on terrorism that followed September 11. In particular, we see Bush in constant meetings with the other cabinet members, including Rice, Powell and Chaney, as they engage in lengthy discussions about how best to handle this situation. Much humour occurs in these scenes, but the humour is subtle and not as caustic as in Moore’s documentary, much of it targeted at Bush’s religious beliefs as well as at American foreign policy.
It is in the scenes that follow Bush’s formative years where Stone presents us with a character who is vulnerable and unsure of his place in the world. We see the tensions between him and his father, his struggles with alcohol, his becoming a born-again Christian, and his attempts to find some meaning in his life and career. The Bush we see here is an ordinary guy, an everyman, and is a million miles away from the familiar image that we have come to know. Now, I’m not saying that Stone’s film me change my opinion about Bush, but it certainly made me ponder the type of man he was prior to becoming President.
Throughout, Bush is played superbly by Josh Brolin, whose excellent performance in No Country For Old Men was overshadowed by the that of Javier Bardem. In W., he plays the younger Bush like a modern-day cowboy who struggles to live up to the pressure of being the son of George H Bush. His turn as President Bush resembles the one with which we are most familiar and he looks, walks and talks like the man himself. Brolin’s is just one of a many fine performances in the film, including James Cromwell as Bush Sr, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell.
Overall, W. is a finely acted film that portrays George Bush the man as an ordinary American and reserves its more satirical moments for George W. Bush, the President. However, this is a subtle form of satire that often goes unnoticed. It is usually underscored by a hint of patriotic music that frequently plays in the background during significant moments and speeches. It is quite possible, however, that I see this as slightly mocking because of my particular political and personal beliefs. It is also possible that a viewer with a different outlook will see this as an affectionate portrayal of their President. And perhaps satire that leaves a little to the imagination is better than that which reveals a bit too much