Comparing Oliver Stone's W. to his Nixon is probably a fool's errand. Over twenty years transpired between Richard Nixon's resignation and Stone's epic treatment of the man's life and political travails. George W. Bush still has around ninety days in office. His presidency, though considered by a majority of Americans to have had a deleterious effect on his country, has not been given sufficient time to be viewed with the (often nonexistent) objectivity of an historical perspective. Whereas at least a significant portion of the most unforgiving loathers of Nixon will admit that he possessed a certain intelligence, and had concomitant features that today seem extinct, such as a foreign policy shaped around realpolitik and (comparatively) limited interests related to matters defined as strictly pragmatic purposes, exerting a kind of statesmanship in “opening China” that would, likely admitted by at least some W.-boosters, befuddle the forty-third president. Nixon naturally invites the kind of hypnotically tragic play about his life, his deeds, his soul; Bush, meanwhile, may be best approached in a Strangelovian, fun-house mirror way. Marx was more correct than he knew with his timelessly written opening sentences of his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1852: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
W. suffers from almost every apparent problem you would likely think nearly inevitable when undertaking a kind of part-biopic, part-framing of the back-story of the Iraq War and throwing it all into one narrative. Noticeably absent: every other major occurrence of W.'s presidency. Stone's voice can be heard through the vicariously created Colin Powell (Jeremy Wright) as the general warns the president in Crawford, Texas, months before the invasion of Iraq, “This will become your first term, sir.” Evidently, Stone believes Iraq is Bush's presidency, period. Abu Ghraib is never mentioned (Guantanamo Bay is once), though lightly hinted at as a future scandal as Dick Cheney (a creepily intense but sternly understated Richard Dreyfuss) tells Bush about the ramifications of some of the details in a certain bill, which Bush glances at between voracious bites into his lunch meat sandwich, happily noting the number of pages (three). The narrative stops before Katrina. Before the Afghan insurgency became overwhelming, to the point of being considered more effective than the Iraqi insurgency. Before “The Surge.” Before most Americans knew “Osama” could rhyme with the name of a presidential hopeful. Indeed, the narrative just stops, abruptly, clumsily, as if the film were reveling in the inconclusiveness of the denouement. Stone, doubtless aware of this issue, brazenly has his picture conclude with the words “The End,” paradoxically conveying the open-ended, humorously inadequate destination of his own seriocomic snapshot of George H.W. Bush's (James Cromwell) black sheep-turned-presidential successor progeny.
If the finale is lackluster, almost necessarily so (but not to the point it is in Stone's film), what about the twisting road to that place? Brolin is unquestionably exceptional in his role—he, under Stone's direction, makes W. as complicated as possible, while never straining to adorn the man with qualities or attributes he so transparently lacks. Spoiled rotten as a teenager and young man, a frat brat screw-up at Yale, never applying himself to anything, including several “summer jobs” his father, Poppy, as he is called, attempts to give his son, he finally decides to follow his congressman father down the political road in 1977, running for the congressional nineteenth district of Texas after the Democratic incumbent leaves office. However, W. is chewed up by his Democratic rival in their debate, being “out-Texas'd” and “out-Christian'd,” as W. will later call it, by the mud-slinging Democrat. W. loses his bid, freshly determined to never allow the stinging bite of loss to reenter his political life. “I'll never allow myself to be out-Texas'd and out-Christian'd again,” he angrily vows once the reality of his failed campaign hits him.
Possibly the most truly comparative auteurist note of technique with Nixon, and other Stone features, is the director's affinity for symbolism. As Bush #43 throws a ball for Barney the dog to fetch, the “Boy Genius” and “Architect,” Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer (Rob Corddry) metaphorically do the same with the president, throwing balls of sound-bites to the decider so he can win the American people over. As Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (a cartoon-like, over-the-top and grating Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (a wisely reserved Scott Glenn, conveying the mannerisms of the Secretary of Defense without ever resorting to caricature), General Tommy Franks (Michael Gaston), Cheney and others—sans Powell, the one voice of moderation with a uniquely small-c conservative outlook on the role of the military—all speak with assured bellicosity and arrogant woolgathering that reduces American foreign policy to blustery cockiness, all certain in their deluded minds that the invasion and subsequent war will be a rapid, triumphal affair, only to find themselves lost, having somehow aimlessly, walked off of the road like a doomed herd of animals on Bush's ranch. Stone cuts back to a long shot, determined to drive the equally comedic and frightening point home: these people are deeply lost. When David Kay is served up as being responsible for no one finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq months after the Iraq War's commencement, Rumsfeld (who himself will later be terminated, hours after the 2006 midterm election resulted in disaster for the Republican Party, days after W. told everyone Rumsfeld and Cheney would be around for the entirety of W.'s second term) and several others like the slimy Paul Wolfowitz—whose statement that the war would be paid for by Iraqi oil was hilarious at the time, depressing now—consume their slices of pecan pie, watching Kay fall on his sword for the sake of the president and his myrmidons (in reality, he is truly their myrmidon, a point Stone consistently hits, but never overwhelmingly so). In a room filled with deipnosophists, W. simply throws out less articulate points, discrepantly more edible for many Americans' consumption.
Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush, and she displays the innately dulcet, ambrosial texture of W.'s sweetheart, but the role is curtailed by Stone's currently pertinacious conventionality that used to not be so evident in his handling of relationships such as this. What does continue from Stone's earlier work is the Oedipal complex, made more alarmingly shallow than ever before, with W. tenaciously attempting to outdo his father, make his father truly express his love for his son (an awkward scene the day of W.'s gubernatorial inauguration in Texas hits the point, but Stone mistakenly undercuts his own drama by having W. voice the dynamic to his wife) and, in some vindictive combating against the one-term presidential fate of his father, to win the presidency and take out the “asshole who tried to kill my dad,” as he terms it to Rove and Fleischer, Saddam Hussein. Cromwell does not try to especially look or sound like Bush, Sr. but with those famed glasses (this writer would at the age of four, wear his father's glasses at the time of Bush #41's presidency, which were much like Bush #41's, saying, “I'm the president”) and stolid, well-bred demeanor, he captures what makes Bush, Sr. somewhat intriguing as a case study of power in the hands of “a political aristocrat,” as one off-screen news anchor describes him. Cromwell, a significantly taller man than Brolin, is allowed to tower over him, illuminatingly limning the overarching dynamic of their interactions with one another, and the psychological impact of Bush, Sr.'s towering over the eponymous son. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush is another role minimized in importance, merely vacillating between her husband and her son, sometimes struggling to keep the two on speaking terms.
Where W. most trenchantly fails, however, is in the big picture department, as its subject might say: the film is disjunctively, sporadically cut up, again, like Nixon but unlike that finely tuned, monumentally expansive orchestral performance, W. resembles a dissatisfying, only ephemerally interesting sinfonietta, cut short. The film is troubled by “the vision thing,” as critics of Bush #41 remarked. There is only one scene in the whole film that feels like a comprehensively kindred spirit to Stone's earlier, more vital, more simultaneously intensive and sweeping works, and that is when Cheney stands up and makes his case for a lasting, imperial presence of America's might and power in the region of the Middle East. That is where Stone finally stops reenacting numerous scenes people who have followed the news know occurred, and digs deeper. W. is in so many different ways a filmic lark, made by a man attentive to the political, “psycho-historical” vein that quickens and decreases in pulsation, increasingly clogged and threatened by those edible bits thrown by this and many other members of the “managerial elite,” pace James Burnham, and, in this election season, those desirous of the reins of untrammeled, unconstitutional executive power.