Friday, October 28, 2016

Super Delegates Bonus: George W. Bush in "W." (2008)

Josh Brolin in W.
Welcome to Super Delegates Bonus. As a subsidiary of Super Delegates, the sporadic additional column is meant to explore depictions of politicians on film outside of the conventional methods of the column. This ranges from everything such as political candidates in TV movies and miniseries to real life candidates providing feedback on their pop culture representation. While not as frequent or conventional, the goal is to help provide a vaster look at politics on film as it relates to the modern election year. Join in and have some fun. One can only imagine what will be covered here.

Release Date: October 17, 2008
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Stanley Weiser
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ioan Gruffuld
Awards: N/A
Delegates in Question:
-President George W. Bush
-President George H.W. Bush

Director Oliver Stone was always known for making provocative political cinema. It is easy to find the allure of it in Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born KillersJFK, or Nixon. He has an immediacy that grabs the viewer and forces them to see his views. While it should be accepted as fact that he takes creative license to fit more traditional themes, what he has inevitably done is shape modern political cinema in is image. JFK may be riddled with inaccuracies, but it's a procedural that is nonetheless riveting to experience. Nixon is a biopic of one of America's most reviled 20th century presidents, presented as a Greek Tragedy. Then there's W., a film that seems out of place both in length (it clocks in almost 90 minutes shorter than both JFK and Nixon) and style. W. doesn't play like the serious story that audiences wanted in 2008. It came across as a farce with Josh Brolin's George W. Bush embodying a man whose privilege more than kept him afloat. The film was a drama, but the son who would be president was himself a farce.

This was a bold move on Stone's part. It was a film criticizing Bush's first term in office during the lame duck portion of his second. The 2008 election was weeks away, and here was a film that would humanize Bush without letting his negligence go. It was a bold move, and one that isn't steeped in the decades of critical analysis that JFK and Nixon had. W. was a film for the moment, and one that played into the satire of the time. Brolin was far from the first Bush imitator - Will Ferrell had been doing it for almost a decade before this movie existed - yet he was one of the most charismatic for attempting to be ugly and sympathetic at the same time. As he pitches woo to future First Lady Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks), he talks with food in his mouth and has guffawing jokes. He's charming in the way that a lifelong alcoholic is. He's charming, but he's also ill-tempered and doesn't strike friends as someone who will amount to much.

Yet the audience knows W.'s conclusion before the film begins. He is president. He serves two terms. All things considered, the film plays as a farcical update of "The Prodigal Son" with his father George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) constantly giving his son with middling grades opportunities to follow the family dynasty. Jeb Bush (Jason Ritter) is the son who did good but, as followers of the 2016 election will know, his attempts to be president have been tragically denied.  Stone's fascination can be found in the clumsy redemption story that evolves in the second hour. The first paints the broad strokes, including the feud between father and son. Everything after involves George W. Bush getting sober, falling into politics, and running on Stone's allusion that George H.W. Bush was robbed during the 1992 election by Bill Clinton. It is a family affair, and the hero is the son who was only starting to turn his life around.

Like Richard M. Nixon in Nixon, the appeal of George W. Bush as President is that he is the insecure, somewhat dimwitted man who goes with his gut. He doesn't know how to handle the big issues, but knows that he wants to make his father proud. He does so with the familiar and inelegant language that he was mocked for in real life. It isn't pretty, but it helps to solidify some truth. He is a comic character in a drama, wanting to be taken seriously but lacks the know how. It is why the opening music shifts between patriotic themes and generic baseball music. It is so jarring, but reflects the hard working Texan attitude that the state is known for. The format may be incredibly jarring to viewers who are unsure of the film's thematic structure. However, it makes sense, especially when shown parallel to the real life Bush, who was definitely a figure of mocking values in real life.

W. is a film that feels like it was released too early, in part because society wasn't ready to see Bush in any light besides brutal insults. The film doesn't make light of his many controversial moves. However, it embodies the work of a flawed man that wants acceptance. He has nightmares over it and soon "The Prodigal Son" story isn't resolved by a nation forgiving him, but just his father. The country he is president of will take him to task in his second term. In the final scene, Bush is seen on a baseball field (his proposed place of solitude). The audience hears a baseball bat crack and the ball go up. Bush looks to the sky before staring into the camera. He doesn't know what will hit him literally in the moment as well as in his second term. The stare into the camera is one of sympathy and a reflection of the sad clown. Do you laugh because clowns are funny, or do you sympathize with him for being where so many people have been before: helpless? Either way, everyone is looking at him for the answer.

It would be difficult to release a film equivalent of W. for Barack Obama. However, this would be the time if history wished to directly parallel events. There was the romantic drama Southside With You, but that was far from a critical diatribe of the president's time in office. There have been smear campaigns in the past, but no big budgeted film has attacked him in the fashion that Stone attacked Bush. It is a portrait that is difficult because it doesn't give easy answers. He does make some annoying mistakes. Obama hasn't been as abundantly under fire enough to even suggest a biopic that would attempt to alter his public perception with a few months more in office.

W. is yet to be great cinema, but it is vital to Stone's provocative nature. It was a film that needed to be made to better explore the complexities of Bush's time in office. To ask how the film has impacted society is to state the obvious. Bush is only seven years out of office at this point. Everything that he has set in place has been slowly put into law or been altered to fit a more plausible agenda. He still shows up to public events and has been known to dabble in painting. His impact is something so critical to the moment that those viewing the film are likely to carry personal grudges against him. They cannot see a sympathetic portrait of Bush without breaking the TV. He is still a controversial figure, and one that may take decades to properly assess, let alone determine the severity of his actions properly.

With that said, there's another note to consider when discussing Bush. In an interview during the past year, he has discussed worry of being the last Republican president. This is a statement of caution more than fact, but is easy to see the logic behind it. Current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has become a divisive figure that has slowly lost followers in his own party, even insulting many openly on Twitter. The idea that he "embodies" the party's platforms as bigoted doesn't sit well for the party's future going ahead. While there is still potential that the party can reform, or alter into something different, Bush's worry is one steeped in animosity to "The Party of Lincoln." It doesn't help that among the many telltale signs is that no living previous Republican president showed up to the Republican National Convention; a fact made even more shocking when considering that it was the first in decades to not feature a Bush family member. Beyond this, no living former president has endorsed Trump at any point in the election. At least George W. Bush had some backing.

W. is a film that needs to have time on it side. The world needs to be distant from the events depicted in the film. Maybe Bush will never be the greatest president, which would make the film's subtext even more sad. Yet the ability to look at a president who tried to get his life together and make a difference seems like something that should remain admirable. It isn't likely that any president will go on without his critics. Bush simply has more of them than either Bill Clinton or Obama at this point. However, he does look to be a part of film history as the one modern president, alongside Nixon, who is a compelling force when explored through fiction. He's far from perfect, and maybe was about as likely a president as Billy Carter, but he still seems like a guy with the same passions and mistakes that everyone makes. Stone doesn't give him a pass on this, but uses it to explain so much of the grey areas of his presidency.

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