If the Downfall Meme illustrates the power of viral videos to speak back to an “original” text, altering its meaning, then any attempt to narrate the presidency of George W. Bush will bump up against an almost unlimited number of textual representations, making it almost impossible to look at Bush with anything resembling a fresh perspective. In juxtaposition against this expansive network or storehouse of images of the President, which would include documentary films, books, YouTube videos, and even Bush’s “intentional” self-representations at press conferences, Bush himself has all but disappeared in recent months, eclipsed by a presidential race that we can only hope will end in just a few short days on November 5th. The result is that W. (IMDB), Oliver Stone’s early attempt to provide a definitive take on the George W. Bush presidency–just in time for the election, naturally–feels equal parts contrived and irrelevant, simultaneously too early and too late to provide any unexpected readings of one of the most controversial political figures in recent American politics. As J. Hoberman argues in the Village Voice, the film “can’t decide whether its aspirations are Shakespearean tragedy, political critique, or cathartic black comedy.” It is, perhaps, closest to the latter, and as political commentary, it is somewhere between obvious and irrelevant while also seeming strangely muted (perhaps with an eye towards trying to appear “fair and balanced”).
In some sense, my reaction to Stone’s film cannot be disconnected from previous impersonations and representations of George W. Bush that date back at least to Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys with George, in which candidate Bush is seen as a rakish charmer who wins the affections of the press pool following him across the country, an image that was constantly being renegotiated, perhaps most famously by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, in which the President becomes an oblivious cowboy poseur. For me, however, it was most difficult to separate W. from the various comic impersonations of Bush, particularly Will Ferrell’s SNL portrayals of him. By coincidence, Ferrell rejoined SNL to play Bush offering his endorsement of John McCain the night I happened to see the film, and the sketch wittily dramatizes the degree to which McCain has been forced to run against an unpopular incumbent president while his VP candidate Sarah Palin (again played by Tina Fey) seems to be on the verge of running against him.
With all of those images in mind, it became virtually impossible to watch W. without thinking about the actors as impersonators acting a part rather than seeing them as immersing themselves into a character. To some extent, I’m tempted to read these performances as occasionally achieving something akin to a Brechtian alienation effect, but I’m not sure whether that is the intention. There are moments that support such a reading. When Josh Brolin repeats some of the president’s most famous Bushisms, many of them are spoken out of context, in situations relatively remote from their origins. These scenes, perhaps, serve as a reminder that the public Bush is nothing more than the soundbites and video clips that we have all already seen. In addition, the performances of the supporting members of Bush’s Cabinet do offer an interesting take on their role within the Bush administration. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell essentially matches the liberal narrative of Powell as the reluctant warrior, the quiet, moral center who was essentially ignored by the zealous neoconservatives. Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Cheney constantly looms in the background, a ghostly presence who seems to dominate discussion while saying almost nothing (other than a dramatic soliloquy about Iraq’s relationship to our oil interests). But because the film spends so much energy tracking Bush’s adolescence and examining him behind the scenes in Cabinet meetings, the effect of these moments of alienation seems less clear.
The film famously intercuts between Bush’s presidency, beginning with Bush in the White House office working with his staff on the “Axis of Evil” speech that would serve as a key launching point for the war in Iraq, and Bush’s adolescence and young adulthood, in which he converts from a life of debauchery and laziness into a president who would ambitiously introduce western democracy to the the Middle East. This intercutting serves as the closest thing the film offers to a “thesis” or approach to the historical figure of George W. Bush, suggesting some combination of the argument that Bush’s ambitious overreach in Iraq was an attempt, in part, to work through his daddy issues, with James Cromwell’s patrician George H. W. Bush never providing his son with his much needed approval. At the same time, W. revisits the argument that Bush’s actions are guided by his born again experience when he stopped drinking and sought to redeem himself.
As a result, W. never fully resolves the tension between what might be called the “Psychological Bush,” the son who must not only avenge his father’s failure in Iraq but surpass them, and the “Surface Bush,” the public image of the president that mixes both intentional (press conferences, State of the Union addresses) and unintentional (SNL parodies, YouTube mashups) publicity. In addition, the film essentially culminates with the beginnings of the insurgency in Fallujah, leaving out what may prove to be the most devastating legacy of the Bush White House, the drowning U.S. economy, not to mention the entire 2004 campaign.
To some extent, I think that as the film concludes, Stone may in fact be inviting us to “feel sorry” for Bush, as Roger Ebert surmises. Left in a bubble created equally by himself and his generally submissive Cabinet, we see Bush as essentially alone, and somewhat childlike, fantasizing about playing center field in an empty baseball stadium. But, again, the scene seems content to reinforce some of the already existing myths about Bush–this time as grown up jock–rather than exploring how those myths were created and how they developed so much power in the first place.