W is pronounced ‘Dubya’. We know this, not least, because Oliver Stone opens his film with a discourse on nicknames. George ‘W’ Bush is shown, first in a White House meeting dolling out crude monikers: turd blossom (Rove), balloon foot (Powell), guru (Rice), and rummy (Rumsfeld).
We are then shown a teenage W’s fraternity pledge during which he is able to remember the entire fraternity by their nicknames (the ironic result is that the young W avoids having more whisky poured down his throat).
Stone’s counter-intuitive commentary does not stretch to his central thesis. He claims that W’s decision to invade Iraq arose from his relationship with his father. After depicting the many disappointments W causes his father (W can’t play baseball or hold down a job, and leaves his girlfriend pregnant) the Freudian tension culminates when father and son have a real tussle, and later when W dreams about fighting him in the Oval Office.
W’s own doubts about his ability to play baseball (and to win his father’s love) are played out in stadium dream sequences, in the last of which (the closing scene of the film) he drops a catch he had earlier made.
The run-up to the invasion of Iraq monopolises the depiction of W’s presidency but does not ring true and will be cringe worthy for those who enjoy the work of Aaron Sorkin. This is in part because of the intense exposition in these scenes, but also because of clunky (but not necessarily inaccurate) scripting and the caricaturing of Condoleezza Rice (as a simpering yes-woman) and Karl Rove.
An incident in which Cheney points at a cartoon-like map representing threats in the Middle East was so reminiscent of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet movie Team America that one half-expected one of the principals to cry out ‘my god, that would be 9/11 times a thousand.’ In using phrases like ‘I’m the decider’ (W tells Cheney not to challenge him when others are in the room) and ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, won’t get fooled again’, meanwhile, Oliver Stone tries to provide more realism by transposing public utterances into private White House conversations.
Earlier scenes in W’s life are interwoven with the contemporary in the style Stone perfected in Nixon. These earlier scenes are an attempt to provide the Freudian thesis with its backing. They are well paced, and give some genuine insight into the character of the 43rd president.
The first meeting with Laura (in which W continuously talks with his mouth full of barbeque food), is endearing, although Laura (Elizabeth Banks) never seems to age through the rest of the film. Most significant is a scene in which W, after debating an opponent in his first and unsuccessful congressional race, drives his car into the garage door in frustration.
The resulting promise W makes is to ‘out-Christian and out-Texas Texas’. However, from that moment on the viewer is led unquestioningly through scenes in which W professes his religion and claims to have been called by God to run for the presidency.
The same straight bat treatment is given to W’s drying out following his 40th birthday. Stone suggests W himself decided to give up drinking after nothing more than a dizzy spell during a run and under no duress from his family. In scenes showing W’s shrewd work on his father’s campaign in 1988 and his courting of religious conservatives, Stone is on safer ground, and is making important biographical points which again push against common prejudices about W.
In the sanctification of W’s father (James Cromwell) Stone fares less well. Cromwell dominates the screen both through the lines given and his acting. In scenes including the depiction of the first Gulf War the viewer is given to believe Bush 41’s only failing is his inability to relate to his son.
If this is the reason why W invades Iraq, as Stone is suggesting, he is led on by his friends. Cheney is painted in a familiar and sinister light (circumventing CIA director George Tenet to legitimise evidence that Iraq had attempted to acquire yellowcake from Niger).
Stone portrays W as innocent and unsophisticated, never asking enough questions (displayed at the climax of the film in W’s anger that no weapons of mass destruction are discovered following the invasion), but as having been in the room when the case was made (by Cheney and his map) in terms of both oil and regional power.
The film makes scant reference to 9/11 and the effect this had on W, leaving the case for war horribly out of context. What Stone delivers is interesting and entertaining, but not much more than fictional psychobabble.