In the opening sequence of Oliver Stone’s biopic of George W. Bush, the grey-haired Prezz (Josh Brolin) sits in a meeting while speech-writers and advisers try to come up with a proper phrase to encapsulate America’s current enemies, testing out the a couple of duds (‘Axis of Unfriendliness?’) before hitting on ‘Axis of Evil’. It’s a funny, all-too-credible bit, but weirdly close in tone to the short-lived Parker/Stone TV series That’s My Bush!, in which Timothy Bottoms perfected a dead-on parody of Bush, and members of his family and administration became sit-com supporting stooges. Stone and Brolin work hard to make this Bush not a caricature, but many of the President’s failings – his contorted syntax under pressure, his vow never ‘to be out-Texaned and out-Christianed’ again after an early defeat – are undeniably funny and so, unlike Stone’s Nixon (which similarly tried to get under the skin of a troubled Republican President), this often defaults to comedy. The use of ironic nursery music (the ‘Robin Hood’ theme, ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’) makes Bush and his cabinet seem childish, as they get lost on a nature-walk following their leader while hashing out national policy. Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice comes across like one of Pamela Stephenson’s impersonations on Not the Nine O’Clock News, while a few crucial moments (a Bush prayer circle shot from a low angle that frames a halo of lights above him) evoke Stanley Kubrick’s War Room nightmare comedy, with Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) giving a Strangelovian power point presentation about oil. I once riffed out loud a notion that the relationship between George Bush Senior and Junior was like that shown in the Robert Duvall movie The Great Santini, with the elder Bush bouncing a ball off the younger’s head taunting ‘Georgie’s scared of Osama bin Laden’ until W cries; Stone goes one further with a climactic dream sequence (a bit of a cheat) in which GWB imagines his father (James Cromwell) invading the Oval Office with his fists up, snarling about a two-hundred year family legacy that Junior has squandered as badly in office as he did in his earlier years as a drunken, promiscuous wastrel who couldn’t hold down a job.
Biopics of sitting presidents are tricky (the film made it to US theatres in time to beat the election, and ran in the UK before Bush left office), though the conservatives who have knee-jerk hate-spasms against the idea of ‘notorious liberal’ Stone tackling their beloved Commander in Chief raised no objection to TV movies like DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, in which Bottoms played Bush as a heroic, non-bumbling figure. As in Nixon and JFK, dramatisations of public events get scrambled up with speculations about the characters of participants – just as they do in, say, Gunfight at the OK Corral or Richard III, though when the players are not only still alive but (in some cases) still in office at the time of production, there were inevitable arguments about the validity of speculations. It seems to me that Stone bends over backwards to try to find nice things to say about someone he is politically out of sympathy with, and there’s a great deal of Stone himself in this GWB, from the thorny relationship with an Establishment figure father through bouts of wild, excessive behaviour that undermine his attempts to do solid work. If Stone wanted to make a complete hatchet job, he could just have shot a rigorously based-on-fact biopic called W: The Early Years in the style of a redneck frat boy slob comedy and ended the story before the protagonist was ‘born again’ (reviewing his son’s record of womanising and drunkenness, Senior snarls ‘who do you think you are, a Kennedy?’). Bush’s rechristianising is played sincerely – though it’s less affecting, oddly, than a similar plot turn in The Notorious Bettie Page – with Stacy Keach underplaying as Bush’s charismatic, sincere mentor Earle Hudd, but non-Americans like me find it impossible not to cringe at the little prayer circles which end cabinet meetings (Stone hints that some Bush associates squirm too) or feel that the older Bush was right not to go the born again route because the yoking of public religion and public office made him feel uncomfortable.
Stone, incidentally, seems to feel W’s born again Christianity is irreproachably sincere, but that he still sees the political value in it; like his cowboy mannerisms and good ole boy blundering, it’s a way of connecting with heartland voters who might otherwise associate him with the generations of patrician privilege that constitute a powerful political dynasty. The flashbacks cover relationships and incidents Stone sees as key to understanding Bush – his meet cute with the former Democrat Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is good (though the fine actress doesn’t subsequently get the showcase Joan Allen did as Pat Nixon), his longterm alliance with advisor Karl Rove (Toby Jones) is shown as a canny symbiosis rather than some mephistophelean bargain, and much is made of Bush’s tenure as owner of a baseball team and his fantasies of being applauded or losing the ball on the field – but the main action is narrow-focused on the build-up to and the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Stone can’t resist the choking-on-a-pretzel anecdote, but remarkably avoids some subjects: the TV movie Recount did the shenanigans surrounding the 2000 election and Fahrenheit 911 had the sat-in-the-schoolroom-looking-lost footage, but the Florida recount and the WTC attacks (which Stone showed obliquely in World Trade Center) are surprisingly minor, indeed scarcely mentioned elements. Instead, we get the regime’s need to justify war against Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and the beginnings of disenchantment as it turned out that the dictator was bluffing.
As in Nixon, Stone gets great cameo-work from high-powered actors as high-powered folks: Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Ioan Gruffud as Tony Blair (presumably, Michael Sheen was busy being David Frost), Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Bruce McGill as CIA chief ‘Brother George’ Tenet, Dennis Boutsikaris as Paul Wolfowitz, Randall Newsome as Paul Bremer. Not all of the roster escape caricature, and some seem as if they’re in need of their own movie – Wright’s Powell, who is almost backed into supporting a war he has overwhelming bad feelings about, is so good that it’s a shame his crisis of conscience isn’t more elaborated. Stone makes a concerted attempt to avoid many of the clichés of the presidential movie – few shots of the White House, inaugurations, flags, corridors of power, coffins coming home – and, daringly, climaxes with a non-event, a press-call at which W bumbles and fails to come up with anything coherent to say when asked by a not-unsympathetic journalist ‘what are your greatest mistakes and what have you learned from them?’