When the “South Park” boys looked at George W. Bush not long after he’d been sworn in in 2001, they saw in the malapropism-prone Texan we’d sort of elected the perfect sitcom character, a genial doofus whose hijinks could always be resolved in the space of half an hour, even though those problems hung on the unresolvable ones over which our country regularly tears itself apart. And with all that’s happened in the intervening years, with “W.” we find that when Oliver Stone looks at our current president, he apparently also sees…a genial doofus. “W.” isn’t a vitriolic indictment of G.W., or, despite the goofy soundtrack choices (“Yellow Rose of Texas,” more than once), so much a satire — it’s a “Nixon”-esque timeline-leaping biopic that, like many films in the genre, attempts to solve its subject as if he were a math problem. The answer here is: daddy issues.
It’s mightily unbalancing to watch selected moments of the past eight years in politics recapped (with recognizable actors) like the “previously on” preface of a primetime soap, and to see the current situation in Iraq attributed to the family fuck-up trying to prove to his pops that he’s just as a deserving of paternal affection as his brother Jeb. “W.” is bewildering all around, first and foremost because it seems to be the year’s most unrequested attempt at humanism: George W. Bush as a man to pity, as a good ol’ boy from a wealthy background who’s got neither smarts nor political drive, but who does have plenty of charisma, who gets into “the family business” to force Bush senior to take him seriously, who invades Iraq to do what his dad wouldn’t, who places his trust in his advisers and faith, only to have them steer him wrong, who’s an inept leader who always sincerely means well. (We also see him choke on that pretzel — some things you just can’t pass up.) G.W. is played straight, with Josh Brolin giving an earnest, unpretty performance that, unlike most of the cast playing the Cabinet, gets beyond impersonation.
We’re still too close for fictional takes on our two terms with number 43 to be anything more than knee-jerk — controversy-courting fantasies about assassination or limp lampoonery — but “W.”, hurried pointlessly into theaters before the election, affects having distance and perspective that isn’t there. In 20 years, it’ll be just another mediocre biopic. Watching it now, with its subject still in office, it seems like a dream of closure, as if by bending G.W.’s career into a familiar format we could be done with it when the credits rolled.
[Photo: “W.”, Lionsgate, 2008]
+ “W.” (Lionsgate)