All American boy
Oliver Stone's 'W' a compelling tale

Josh Brolin in a scene from'W'

by Judith Reynolds

hen George W. Bush decides to go to war, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” can be heard in the background. Its folksy optimism swells as Bush closes his war room meeting and invites everyone to pray. The upbeat, country tune continues during film footage of the operation known everywhere as “Shock and Awe.” Bombs explode, fires burn and the jolly twang of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” continues. The music carries its satirical message like a dart in a barroom, straight to the cornea.

You get the picture. Director Oliver Stone uses music to do the heavy lifting of satire in his new film “W.” Often barely heard, the music sneaks in to whisper a meaning different than the scene portrays. “The Whiffenpoof Song” accompanies binge drinking at W’s fraternity during pledge week. “Robin Hood” gallops along with W’s misbegotten dream of saving the world. “Everything to God in Prayer” pedals the undercroft of Bush’s conversion to Christianity. On the other hand, semi-classical piano music haunts father George H.W. Bush. Refined orchestral music creates a contrary atmosphere – older-and-wiser, suggesting moments of reflection. Thinking? Reflection? Hey, W, doesn’t do “introspection.” We get that from the get-go.

“Don’t think about it,” he says, in a key scene. “That’ll only confuse you. I think from my gut.”

Stone has not only captured W, he’s also painted a portrait of an all-American kid. That’s what’s most uncomfortable of this boy-who-would-be-king story. His qualities are all too American – a jocular sense of entitlement, party now-pay later, and a total lack of direction. It’s no surprise that in 2003 no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq. Bush wants to know who screwed up. He struts around and yells at everyone in the war room. The blame game progresses until he finally shouts: “Who is responsible?” The real answer hangs in the air. This, after a scene where the snarly charmer has reminded staffers: “Hey, I jes wancha to remember, I’m the decider.”

Director Stone (“JFK,” 1991; “Nixon,” 1995) has put together another presidential biopic that is largely based on fact but flavored with imagination. The film begins with an eerie scene in an empty stadium. We hear an absent roaring crowd cheering a victor. As the young Bush (Josh Brolin) struts onto the field, “Take Me out to the Ballgame” can be heard on the ballpark organ. He throws his arms into the air in a triumphant victory gesture. We learn later that W does this periodically; the fantasy gives him a lift. It’s an obvious and appropriate trope to suggest a little, limited man dreaming of power and adulation.

The film generally proceeds in a linear fashion but flashes back from the fixed point of warmongering, from 2001 to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The flashbacks, beginning in 1966, signal drunken college days, failed attempts at various lines of work, sibling rivalry, persistent parental disappointment, and finally, an unexpected, back door slide into politics. Bush’s renowned turnaround in 1986 from alcoholism to sobriety via a Christian conversion follows W’s personal description. After a night of partying and a severe hangover, he goes jogging in the woods. He falls, the sun blinds him, and he sees the proverbial light – a nice pop rendering of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Stone has taken Bush’s version and delivered it whole, one reason the director has been accused of being almost too kind.

Then Stone undercuts the adulation. The Rev. Earle Hudd (an aging and brilliant Stacy Keach) leads Bush in a Bible study group. Again, music delivers the satirical element. Hudd returns later to listen somewhat skeptically to W’s announcement that he has heard God’s call – to be president. Watch Keach’s face.

Brolin, a young gutsy actor who is small of stature, plays Bush with the requisite pit-bull swagger. Brolin is particularly convincing as a privileged redneck flirt – an interesting combination to play. He does the squint and the smirk. And at the end he captures the faintest confusion as the camera closes in on W’s hidden eyes. “I’m winging my way” happens to be the music.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially James Cromwell as the elegant patriarch of the Eastern Episcopalian establishment. Ellen Burstyn’s more scrappy Barbara Bush is a nice foil, her short fuse used as an explanation for why W is the way he is. Hmmm, sounds like an old family excuse to me. Jeffrey Wright makes Colin Powell’s dissent and capitulation believable, and Richard Dreyfuss’ Cheney is all oily calculation.

Stone’s “W” leads up to the tragic war in Iraq, and one wonders if there might be a sequel. The film pays homage to “Dr. Strangelove” in a variety of ways. And like the best of satire, it uses music to push the irony embedded in real people and real life situations. The film should make you wonder how on earth this country ever elected The Decider. •

 

 

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