Oliver Stone’s most recent film — W — is about as deeply offensive a portrait of a leader of the free world that may ever have been put on the screen. Now it’s one thing to read in a book about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s carrying on conversations while attending to toilet matters with the bathroom door left open. But surely the limits of good taste are far exceeded when we watch George W. Bush pulling down a strip of toilet paper, applying it to his anatomy while talking to his wife, the sound of a toilet flushing softly in the background.
Yes, there was an audible, collective reactive gasp of shock from the thousand-odd first-night crowd at the Regal Majestic Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., just over the border from Washington, D.C. But the scene in which George finds Jesus is surely matched for sheer offensiveness by another stretch of Oliver Stone’s creative imagination.
W is taking one of his solitary runs in the woods when he suddenly collapses to the ground, curled in a fetal position, as the camera pans over the tree tops and then cuts to an immense portrait of a blond, bland, blue-eyed Jesus, the ultimate in dime-store kitch representation. Stone gives us several more variations, equally large and artistically crude. Considering how many possible reproductions of great masterwork portraits of Jesus Christ that Stone had to chose from, clearly the director deliberately sought to ostentatiously belittle W’s spiritual experience. Talk of respect for religion.
Basically, W, a $30 million film, splits into two parts: one: simplistic Freud treatment of father-son relationship — strong father, weak son and two, how W is responsible, largely because of bad advice from his subordinates, for the whole miserable situation we are now in the Middle East. The back and forth of the ins and outs of the behind-the-scenes of to go or not to go to war tend alas to be more boring than informative. Large pieces of W’s life are totally left aside including his siblings. Jeb gets a couple of mentions and as a teenager breaks up a potential fisticuffs with their father. As the titular W, Josh Brolin does Bush proud.
The acting is uneven to the extent of being downright bizarre. Richard Dreyfuss, while he doesn’t really seem much like the Dick Cheney I know, does most convincingly project the Prince of Darkness portrayed by our media. But other casting choices are curious to say the least. Scott Glenn comes across more as a frail English professor than the tough, spirited Rumsfeld we knew from nightly television news.
Women in this film are virtually invisible. Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) is there presumably just to look lovely and be tastefully supportive. Thandie Newton as Secretary of State Condi Rice seems about as strong a presence as Scottie, the family dog, and has barely more screen time. Ellen Bursteyn as Barbara Bush brought the house down for about the only time in the film when she bursts out to her son, “Governor of Texas? You must be kidding.”
The film, incidentally, was shot in a singularly brief 46 days and edited in 12 weeks. Two of the film’s investors, a pair of Moroccan brothers who direct a French production company, were anxious to get the film released in advance of the American presidential election and Stone says that the brothers refused to invest in the film unless he could guarantee to have it completed ready for the election.
Karl Rove, President Bush’s former deputy chief of staff played by Toby Jones, quite deftly told the Wall Street Journal that W is clearly based in a reality that exists only within Oliver Stone’s left cortex.” As for Stone’s own take on President Bush, he finds him “quite a character” and finds him “fascinating.” “I always thought of him as a slacker, but there was an enormous determination to turn things around. Evangelism plays a role in that. Faith, family, friends; these are qualities liked by many Americans. That’s probably why he won the election.”
Showing he is not holding any grudges against the Republicans, he graciously sent a pair of tickets on opening night to John McCain and Sarah Palin who were staying in a hotel across the street from the theatre where W was playing. The Republican candidates chose not to attend. Mr. McCain, however, does get one close-up in the film, standing in the House as President Bush delivers a Sate of the Union address.