What entertains most is the soapy, greatest-hits approach to Bush’s back-story, alongside committed performances (especially from Josh Brolin as Bush), and an atmosphere of end-of-term ribbing, not least when Bush and his ministers get lost in the heat of his ranch while discussing ‘shock and awe’. That the cast mostly play characters older than themselves – Thandie Newton is 35, while Condoleeza Rice is 53 – only adds to the air of school revue. There are laughs and there are moments that nail the forty-third president (such as the reconstruction of a disastrous press conference which Bush follows by retiring to eat pretzels, watch baseball and swallow non-alcoholic beer); but mostly the film falls between the two, never working fully as comedy and never entirely hitting the bullseye as critical biography. The key pressure points are familiar (booze, professional failures, paternal pressures, God); and the absences suggest restraint (the allegations of drug use, the National Guards service, the 2000 election).
What rescues ‘W.’ from being an extended episode of ‘Dallas’ is Stone’s decision to limit scenes of Bush’s presidency to the invasion of Iraq. We see scenes that compress and present the discussions and pressures that led to war: there’s the neo-con influence of Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), the militarism of Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and the reluctant acquiescence of Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). For audiences with short memories, it’s sobering stuff.
Where does that leave Bush? With God and his father. The pop-Oedipal psychology that stresses the importance of a feud with Bush Sr (James Cromwell) and rivalry with his brother is given too much weight; it makes excuses for him. But the Jesus factor is handled more gently. ‘W.’ is neither coruscating nor edifying – but without the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably the best we can hope for.
Cast and crew