At a time when we need Marx’s analytical abilities, Oliver Stone offers Freud. In his one-dimensional biopic, “W,” we do not gain insight into how a less than brilliant president circumvented carefully constructed procedures to safeguard the military industrial complex. Instead, Stone offers a pastiche of biographical scenes, from Bush’s raucous boozing days at Yale to his ascendancy to the Oval House and fateful decision to invade Iraq.
In this cinematic attempt to pseudo-psychoanalyze Bush, Stone alludes to his Oedipal premise: W idolizing and simultaneously resenting his over achieving father and un-accepting mother. These cinematic allusions to a rich, dysfunctional family, visual hammers pounded on the audience’s head, should somehow help us understand how this chronic underachiever booked the highest office of the land and led him to invade Iraq.
After Bush Senior loses the 1992 election, a furious W unloads on Poppy: “If only you had gone all the way to Baghdad.” This upsets his parents and Stone then flashes forward to 2003, with W declaring his desire to not let Saddam lead to his political demise. The motive for invading Iraq – to show his father how he can succeed in the White House — becomes W’s internalization both of his father’s political loss and his means to make Poppy proud of him.
In other words, the film eludes W’s responsibility. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragic kings, W does not understand the consequences for lying and manipulating the country into war. In one scene, after former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay informs W and company over pecan pie that Saddam had no WMD, Josh Brolin’s W unleashes his fury at his advisers, acting like a child throwing a tantrum, instead of a commander in chief taking responsibility for his actions.
In two hours, Stone barely touches on his advocacy of torture and wanton abuse of basic liberties. The slimy dark hat, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), slips W a less than appetizing memo to consider over his turkey sandwich—one authorizing the CIA to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. sensory deprivation, prolonged standing, water boarding) on detainees in U.S. custody. W belches: “It’s only three pages, I’ll look at it.”
A joke that won’t get many laughs among Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib detainees; nor any guffaws in the secret prisons across the world in Bush’s “war on terror” – except from sadistic torturers and guards. Indeed, rather than dramatize why and how Cheney circumvented the internal checks and balances within the national security apparatus, “W” offers a pseudo slapstick and caricatured version of critical events leading to war and carnage. As a result, Stone casts Jeffrey White (Colin Powell), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld) and Thandie Newton (Condi Rice) as “Saturday Night Live” impersonators as if performing in a long skit, instead of fully realized characters in a movie.
Stone tries to make comedy from a tragic situation – but the material is inherently unfunny for a public that fronts the bill for wars; nor for wounded veterans – much less the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tragedy contains elements of humor. Indeed, life mixes the two. But Stone wants to make sure we get his big joke and thus pounds his audience over the head. The audience occasionally emitted a mild chuckle, but the post film discussions we overheard concluded that the film fell into that unsatisfying genre – like people wanting a beer, but fearful of gaining too much weight: “lite.”
Stone’s attempt to bring an “ultra lite” version of Freud’s Oedipus complex into contemporary White House politics collides with the characters themselves. Yes, Oedipus Rex and family have a certain parallel to the patrician Bushes, the equivalent of American royalty. Grandpa Prescott became known as the Hitler-linked Senator from Connecticut; George H.W. Bush (41), or “Poppy,” a perennial Republican presence from CIA chief to President. Try to imagine “straight talking” Mommy Barbara as a tragic queen!
She showed her character in an event that took place after the film concludes (2004). As Republican spinners tried to dilute her son W’s dramatic absence during Hurricane Katrina and its murderous aftermath in 2005, Babs visited hurricane relief centers in Houston – like the Astrodome complex — and out loud worried that it’s “scary,” because the refugees “all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this [chuckle] is working very well for them.” (NY Times, Sept. 7, 2005)
In the movie, Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) appears as a big mouthed and disapproving bitch, caring little for Junior and concerned only about poor Poppy’s moods and reputation. The film’s dramatic focus centers on how Junior will resolve his Oedipus complex. It riddles us with image and audio bullets carrying the message that Junior must make Poppy proud of him, show Big Daddy his worth, and “not ruin the Bush family name.”
So, after a post hangover epiphany, marrying Laura, a cute liberal Democrat who actually reads, doesn’t drink beer and still falls for a shmuck whose anger provokes him to ram his car into her garage door, the real W emerges. He still fantasizes catching fly balls in the outfield—his field of dreams, as Stone visually reminds the audience—and going mano a mano with his Kingly father. By this time, the literate in the audience will have forgotten that an oracle tells Oedipus’ father, Laius, his fate: “doomed to perish by the hand of his own son.”
The old King tried to kill the baby Oedipus, but a shepherd found the kid who ultimately gets adopted by childless King Polybus of Corinth. Don’t worry, W will not kill his father (unlike what that weasel Saddam tried to do, as Bush confided to reporters ahead of the Iraq war), only disappoint him. Earlier in the film, the audience watches as the Yale graduate struggles to work on an oil rig in Texas without taking a drink. The scene cuts to shots of Poppy (James Cromwell) chiding his son. Why can’t he develop a work ethic, get some drive, be more like Jeb? “We honor our commitments,” he tells W. Hey, why sweat when one phone call from Daddy gets you into Yale and Harvard Business School!
Stone presents a Bush family that descends from the level of Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil” to a place one might call “beneath good and evil.” The banality of this privileged family almost defies the dramatic form. Shakespeare’s kings and princes suffered from character flaws that led them to cataclysmically mistaken decisions. W combines the baseness of Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu, a ruler who understood his job as stealing the money in the kingdom (Enron and the other oil baron buddies), and Nero, who played video golf while his citizens drowned in New Orleans.
The Bushes equate their sense of privilege with their DNA, as if God intended them to be born with silver spoons in their mouths and thus forever enjoy the earthly pleasures without bearing responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan, they epitomize “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.”
Ultimately, Stone’s “W” ranks low on the insights barometer, dramatizing a president we’ve already come to know from press conferences, State of the Union speeches and the occasional interview: a man who lacks curiosity, mangles the English language, loves freedom and prays – for his own success. The scenes with his preacher (Stacey Keach) indicate the banality of the “born again” experience. The men pray together, but for what? Winning an election? Not losing a war? Finding WMD?
With its release just before the election, W highlights the impact of Bush’s inconsequential nature to moviegoers/voters. But it fails to take that substantive step, of probing into one of the most destructive administrations in history, and in the process, shed light on where Americans, the overstretched Republic, can go from there.
The film should have also raised questions about the material nature of the presidency, the substance of the man who promised a more “humble” country, “clear and positive plans,” someone who would “change the tone of Washington to civility and respect” and who called Cheney “a man of integrity and sound judgment.”
Instead of clarity and questions, Stone offers a father-son drama in which both lack character. We know we have a president who barely contains his contempt for critics and adversaries and a vice president he allowed to subvert the foundations of the nation. Tragedy, maybe. Comedy? Some will laugh at a moral schlomozel making schlemiels of the rest of us. (A schlomozel spills his soup. The schlemeil gets it in his lap.)
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow, author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (A/K-Counterpunch) and producer of many films.
Farrah Hassen is the Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.