In the run-up to what was already being touted as the most significant presidential election in years before the recent global financial upheavals that have added so many extra concerns to the race, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hollywood has tried to cash in on the massive political interest that has surrounded the vote. What is surprising is that the only major film of the election season is a biopic of the outgoing president, rather than a more general political piece looking at the state of the union. What’s even more surprising is that the mastermind behind this George W Bush movie is Oliver Stone.
Long one of America’s most controversial and political filmmakers – be it via his devastating critique of Reagan-era policy in Latin America in 1986’s under-watched Salvador or his brutal exploration, based on first-hand knowledge, of the Vietnam War in the same year’s masterpiece Platoon, or even his conspiracy theory-heavy look at the Kennedy assassination in 1992’s JFK – Stone has been out of favour in recent years. In part this is thanks to him being perceived as a left-wing, almost anti-American filmmaker in a period in which the right and patriotism have dominated American political life – but mostly it is thanks to his having not really made any good films for more than a decade.
Stone’s last effort, 2006’s World Trade Centre, on paper seemed like ideal material for
this maverick critic of a succession of Republican US regimes, yet ended up a saccharine exploration of American decency rather than the attack on the Bush adminstration’s failures over the 9/11 attacks that many hoped for. Before that, 2004’s Alexander was a shoddy piece of confusing camp rather than the epic biopic of one of history’s foremost military/political leaders we had been led to expect, while 1999’s American football flick Any Given Sunday was fine, but could have been made by anyone, and 1997’s U-Turn was simply a mess.
Even ignoring his last few efforts, there have been significant worries about this film. Not only is Stone utterly unsympathetic to the Republican Party to which Bush belongs, but what’s up with the casting? He’s cast the ruggedly handsome Josh Brolin as Bush for starters, with the tall and lanky James Cromwell as Bush Snr – neither of whom look anything like the people they’re playing. Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice may just be acceptable, but Ioan Gruffudd as Tony Blair?
But hark back to 1995’s Nixon, and you can begin to see how this film could just work.
Stone, despite having fought in Vietnam and gone on to become one of the US left’s most prominent exponents, somehow managed to produce a surprisingly balanced film in which this mush-reviled right-wing, pro-war president (note the similarities with Bush) came across as both deeply out of touch and surprisingly sympathetic. In which the president himself was played – without makeup – by a Welshman who looked nothing like him. And yet this remains one of the finest political movies ever made.
Will W be able to repeat this unexpected success? With everyone so focussed on real-world American politics, it’s hard to say. But Stone has always been at his best when focussing on real politics and real history. At the very least, W will be an interesting contribution to an analysis of George W Bush’s confusing presidency that is certain to continue for decades.