"[George W.] Bush may turn out to be the worst president in history," director Oliver Stone told Entertainment Weekly. "I think history is going to be very tough on him. But that doesn't mean he isn't a great story. It's almost Capra-esque, the story of a guy who had very limited talents in life, except for the ability to sell himself."
Thus, Stone's film W. is a melodramatic, sometimes farcical look at Bush's life over four decades—from his wild early years to his swift rise to the world's most powerful job. It reimagines his struggles with alcohol, his notorious temper, his conversion to Christianity and his inability to pronounce the word "nuclear." And it ends with a cinematic ellipsis ... a story unfinished, still in progress.
That ellipsis—and much of what precedes it—isn't very kind.
"Are you joking?" Stone told ABC News. "We have two wars going. We have an economy in tatters, and he's not dangerous? He's gonna upset and ruin most of our lives, I think. ... We have been played like marionettes."
Still, while W. is without question a political movie, many of its themes go beyond politics. And those are the themes we'll tackle here—not whether the 43rd president of the United States should've invaded Iraq or not. Discuss the real W. on your own time. Here, we'll address Stone's fictional "Dubya," in all his malapropist glory.
Stone's Bush is idealistic—at least once he starts to get his feet under him. He wants to do what's right for the country. Though some critics believe President Bush intentionally lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Stone's script show him to be furious when it becomes clear Iraq isn't hiding any WMDs—and that his cadre of advisers seem to have intentionally misled him.
He is also driven. As Stone puts it offscreen, "The fact that he had to overcome the shadow of his father and the weight of his family name—you have to admire his tenacity." Onscreen, we see Bush struggle to get his head in the game, dump the baggage of his partying past and put his body back into fighting shape.
When he is in the midst of the mess he makes of things during and after college, it's his father, George H.W. Bush, who shines. He's presented as overbearing here, but we also see that his advice is often right on the money: Stay out of trouble. Go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Grow up. Work hard—for longer than five minutes.
"You haven't kept your word once," "Poppy" rails at "Junior" after the younger Bush walks away from yet another job. "Not once. In the Bush family, we honor our commitments."
For a while, Bush shakes off his father's advice like flies from a horse's hide. Be responsible? Stop drinking? Not for him. Then one morning, he collapses during a routine run and has a powerful religious experience—one that would change his life.
"We must on the surface take his conversion seriously," Stone told screendaily.com. "It is the centerpiece of his change. At the age of 40, he was a drinker and he changed quite radically over a period of four years, so something happened to him."
After the conversion, which is presented as a dialogue-free sequence involving blurred trees and the bright light of the sun, Bush gives up alcohol and starts attending prayer meetings led by a preacher named Earle Hudd (a purely fictional character). It's a hard road at first. "There's a darkness that follows me," he tells Hudd. "And no matter how many times I go to church and pray ... that darkness still has me hooked." The pastor tells Bush, "The Christian life is not a constant high," and that he must commit himself to loving everyone, every minute, for the rest of his life, without promise of payback.
Bush later encourages his father to pick up evangelical lingo when running for president. (The elder Bush refuses.) And when, as the governor of Texas, George W. meets with Hudd again, he tells the preacher, "I believe God wants me to run for president." Once Bush becomes president, we see him lead his closest advisors in awkward and apparently mandatory prayers. (Stone's visual technique here is a subtly mocking one.) Bush references God frequently, both in public and private. When someone asks him whether he's consulted his father about the Iraqi war, Bush snaps back, "There's a higher Father I appeal to."
Before Stone's Bush marries Laura, he's engaged to a girl named Fran. He snuggles up to her at a saloon (and jokingly asks if she's a lesbian) before proposing to her. To celebrate her affirmative response, they get up on the bar and boogie.
Next thing we know, George Jr. is in George Sr.'s office, where Poppy's bawling out his son. It seems Fran is pregnant. Junior whines, "I used a condom, I'm not dumb!" But Poppy is having none of that, and darkly tells his son that he'll "take care of this young woman."
We see a handful of naked frat pledges, including Bush. (The frame cuts off above their waists, but the implication is they're fully nude.) Twice we catch glimpses of the future president either lying or walking around in his underwear. He and others sometimes make crass sexual references.
George W. and Laura kiss occasionally, and they're seen talking in bed a few times.
George Jr. and Sr. nearly get into a fistfight when the younger Bush comes home drunk. Bush later has a dream that the two are fighting in the Oval Office. He rams his car into a garage door after Laura carefully tries to criticize one of his political speeches. He frantically crashes around a room while choking on a pretzel.
W. also features wartime footage, including explosions, shootouts and people walking about in blood-soaked clothes. Audiences see the charred remains of victims.
Crude or Profane Language
Bush may walk with God in this film, but he never walks away from foul language. His fondness for careless cursing (along with the words that come out of the mouths of his associates) leads to a couple of f-words and about 10 s-words. Jesus' name is misused twice (once by Laura), and God's is abused a dozen times. (Four times it's paired with "d--n.") Milder interjections include "h---" and "a--."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Bush consumes copious amounts of alcohol. While being hazed, he and other fraternity pledges have vodka and whiskey splashed all over their bodies and forced through funnels down their throats. At another party, Bush shares a bottle of booze with his 15-year-old brother, Jeb, as the two drive home. Rarely, until he arrives on the political stage, is he without a beer or whiskey bottle in his hand. He even quits a job on an oil rig when his boss won't let him drink a beer on the clock. He, Laura and others smoke cigarettes, too.
Other Negative Elements
Through a partly open door, the camera looks on as Bush uses the bathroom. His onscreen eating habits are rather disgusting, and we repeatedly watch as he noisily chews and gulps and talks around large mouthfuls of food. He plays poker.
W. is sometimes an outsider's psychological portrait of one of the world's most powerful men and sometimes an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. It seems to operate on three distinct levels: The first is loaded with simpleminded "Bushism" stereotypes, designed to get an easy laugh from a presumably liberal-leaning audience. And, consequently, Bush often reads as a bumbling, foolish, rich-kid ne'er-do-well who couldn't see the writing on the wall right in front of him if it was lit up with neon.
The second is a slightly more sympathetic, not-quite complex portrayal of the man who, against all odds and with the apparent help of God, conquered his own weaknesses and addictions to become the leader of the free world.
But on the third level, Oliver Stone seems to be asking a particularly ticklish question: Wouldn't it have been better had Bush not found God? For the sake of the nation (and the world), wouldn't it have been better if Bush had stayed drunk and never amounted to much?
In asking this question, Stone takes aim at Bush's transformative conversion to born-again Christianity. He presents Bush's new faith as sincere but misguided, a naive commitment that's a jarring counterpoint to the power-hungry cabinet members and elected officials who surround him.
We live in a culture that has long questioned exactly what it looks like to separate church and state. In the recent documentary Religulous, Bill Maher argues that religion is a form of madness and that religious political leaders simply can't be trusted. Stone doesn't go quite so far in W., but he still walks a ways down that road. Religion is fine if it gets you off the bottle, Stone seems to say. But if it prompts you to run for president, well, then that's dangerous stuff.
Moviegoers should be required to ask themselves, Is that true? Is America ready for Maher and Stone's more secular society? Should we be? According to a 2007 Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans would even consider voting for an atheist. And many of our highest political leaders have been deeply religious, their faith informing their whole being.
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," wrote John Adams. "It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Has George W. Bush, then, always in every way used his morality and religious faith properly within the leadership role he assumed? Stone can't answer that question. Nor can I. And I don't want to. What I do want to do is see America move away from the notion that belief should not influence decision. Faith changes people. God changes people. It should. And He should. If faith didn't influence every aspect of our lives—if we relegated it to a Sunday morning pastime—what would be the point?
So, again I say, forget presidents and politics and interparty strife. W. implies that we should all carefully pick and choose where and when our faith affects us. Among its many flaws, that may well be the greatest.