Here we are with just months left of a Bush presidency and Oliver Stone stirs up a new emotion: Nostalgia. Oh, the halcyon days of 2003! Though at the time our fists were clenched and our anti-war protests numbered in the millions, at worst we trusted America would destroy Saddam’s palace as easily as a fat toddler crushes a sandcastle, then go back to stuffing our face as the world’s sole superpower.
Like George W. Bush, we hadn’t anticipated Hell. And Stone uses our shared naïvety as a starting point for an empathetic portrait of W. that takes two routes to catharsis: making Bush a joke, and making Bush human. We’ve seen him as a chimp, an arch-villain, and a marionette, but after Stone lets us bust a gut at his greatest hit malapropisms—and yes, the time he choked on a pretzel—he gives Bush the dignity of falling in love with Laura, and later Jesus, with purity and commitment.
As Bush, James Brolin has the straight nose, crow’s-feet, and affected twang. Forty when he shot the film, Brolin both looks the part and doesn’t. Playing a frat boy, he’s too young; playing a president, too young. (Bush was 55 at inauguration, and he’s aged rapidly since.) But it’s fitting for a man who was never in his element. Never has the world so rued a man’s missed opportunity as Texas Baseball Commissioner.
Unlike most of our modern presidents, Bush hadn’t been grooming himself for the office ever since he mailed in his college applications. Infamously, he hardly held a job until he was 40 years old, and that was helping his father George H. W. Bush’s first election campaign after brother Jeb bailed out. One of the unspoken curiosities of W.’s presidency is Bush Sr.’s absence—a silence that Stone notes must speak volumes. The core of his film is a story about a son who tried too late—and too hard—to make his dad proud. When Bush Sr. (James Cromwell, tall, trim, and with the carriage of a once great athlete) snaps at his son in a dream for squandering the Bush dynasty, “200 years of work . . . for Jeb,” to quote another of W.’s predecessors, we feel his pain.
“These lines here—seem like they just dug in overnight,” mourns Bush to Laura (Elizabeth Banks) while staring at his unslept reflection. His cabinet—a solid batch of mimics helmed by Richard Dreyfuss’ slithery Dick Cheney that includes Toby Jones’ Karl Rove, Bruce McGill’s George Tenet, Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld, Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell, and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, her good looks hidden under freckles and twitches—has led him down the primrose path to disrepute when the only thing he’s ever excelled at is popularity. Some will say Stone went too soft on Bush, the only president since LBJ to have been forgotten while in office. But humanizing him allows Stone to make a stronger, broader argument: Bad decisions are made by bad administrations. This election year, it’s not enough to wave goodbye to one man. We need to clean out the whole government.