So in case anyone was hoping (or fearing) this film would offer Bush a bit of redemption, it certainly doesn’t do that.
It doesn’t do much of anything else, either, though. Stipulated: Josh Brolin turns in an uncanny performance in the title role, and most of the rest of the cast is excellent as well—particularly Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, who practically slithers through the film. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from a problem afflicting almost all biopics that attempt to cover a large span of years: it skips so lightly over the surface of events that unless you already know the subject’s life story in some detail, it’s difficult to follow… but if you do already know the subject’s life story in some detail, it’s impossible to ignore how much of that detail has been left out.
In this case, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser obviously tried to strike that balance by sticking to highlights of Bush’s life that are already familiar to the public. It doesn’t really work. Watching Bush get drunk in college, get religion at 40, or get a pretzel stuck in his throat in the White House offers no serious insight into the man or how he has shaped our times, and leaves viewers wanting more. There are isolated moments that are variously funny and pathetic, but they don’t really add up to anything. Stone has offered much more psychologically authentic portraits of completely fictitious characters in the past.
Perhaps the most satisfying scene in the whole film is the “war room” discussion in which Bush and his advisers argue over the motives for invading Iraq. It’s doubtless a fictionalized compression of conversations that probably took place in a variety of settings over a considerable span of time, but for all that it limns the characters and their relationships more effectively than any other single scene. Even so, one can’t help feeling that Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) comes off as implausibly noble largely due to artistic license, simply because there was no other character in the ensemble who could be used to represent a voice of reason.
Overall, one wishes the filmmakers had at least tried to penetrate a little deeper. How and why did Laura (Elizabeth Banks) agree to go out with the boorish drunk Bush was when she met him, much less to marry him? How did Bush first involve Karl Rove (Toby Jones) in his life and career? How did Bush resuscitate that directionless career and become a successful baseball manager? What was he like on the campaign trail, and in the backroom strategy sessions, during his first run for president—or during the 35 days of legal wrangling that followed? How did he (and Rove, and Cheney) pick out the eccentric cast of characters that formed his cabinet? The movie leapfrogs all of these potentially intriguing and dramatic questions, and more… apparently on the premise that we in the audience know how things turned out, so there’s no need to belabor the details.
It is, perhaps, fitting that a movie about an insufferably shallow and incompetent man should wind up being a relatively shallow and incompetent film. However, that doesn’t redeem the watchability of the movie itself.Tags: George W. Bush, Josh Brolin, Oliver Stone