Don’t Call Me Junior

By John Murphy

Posted 10/24/08 at 6:19 AM

No one could accuse Oliver Stone of ducking controversy. But I don’t think anyone expected his new movie about the George Bush presidency, W., to be predictable and toothless, if intermittently amusing. In the era of the internet and insider confessionals, most of what appears on screen has already been widely circulated. What, Bush was an alcoholic? He has daddy issues? His “Mission Accomplished” speech was premature? He talks not so real good? In the immortal words of Casablanca’s Louis, I’m shocked, shocked!

Stone, perhaps anticipating criticism (a liberal screed! character assassination!), tempers his baroque tendencies and delivers a fairly straightforward biopic. These types of movies, whether Ali or Gandhi, follow a comfortable formula: ordinary man overcomes obstacles to achieve greatness and change the world. Maybe Stone’s meta-joke is to invert the formula: ordinary man overcomes obstacles to achieve mediocrity and damage the world.

Stone rushes through familiar anecdotes: Dubya’s frat hazing, hard-drinking early days, his redemptive love for librarian Laura, his abiding love for dogs and baseball, his on-the-wagon conversion to evangelical Christianity, his family tensions, and his fateful decision to invade Iraq. In trying to fit this scattered cast and chronology into a two-hour running time, Stone hammers the father-son drama a little hard, explaining away Bush Junior’s political ambitions as Freudian impulses. To reduce Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, for example, to one Strangelovian cabinet meeting and a repressed desire to prove something to his perennially disappointed father is too pat, even contrived. More unsettling is Bush’s insistence that running for office was part of a ‘divine plan,’ an idea that discomfortingly recalls the ‘divine right of kings’: God ordains kings, and thus whatever kings do is justified as God’s will working in the world. (An Onion headline comes to mind: “Voice of God Revealed to be Cheney on Intercom.”)

Unlike Stone’s other polemics, W. doesn’t feel like the product of anger or scorn. Oddly enough, Stone seems to share the opinion of Bush Senior, as portrayed in the film: Dubya is a well-meaning man of doubtful ability but good intentions who was promoted beyond his capacity. It’s the Peter Principle, basically: every employee (or privileged son) rises to his level of incompetence. If only Dubya really did have God on his side.