One can watch Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ and think that Stone is trying to tell a Greek tragedy. Much here sounds like Oedipus, but the story works from a different point of reference.
This movie plays like a story from the Old Testament, with family issues getting worked out in politics and God seemingly there watching everything transpire. It’s a story in which the blessing of the father is longed for, but not received. And the son tries to win the blessings, even by going to war to defend the father’s honor.
George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) is an Esau-like character—an eldest son who wants to please his father, but Jeb Bush (Jason Ritter) is the favored son, like Jacob. George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell) is like Isaac.
“W.” is a fascinating movie. It may not be good history, but it tells a good story. We see George W. Bush as a servant of God, but his service is marred by his motivation for the blessing of his father. And we see an illustration of “fathers have eaten sour grapes and set their children’s teeth on edge.” When W. is to be inaugurated as governor of Texas, his father gives him a pair of cuff links. They were from his father, Prescott. In the note to W., he is told this is the only thing of value his father ever gave him. That longing for the blessing from father still resided in even W.’s father. This makes the point that it is hard to give something you have not received.
The movie shows W. as a hell raiser—the frat boy that never grew up. He drinks, can’t hold a job and chases after women. His father asks if he thinks he is a Kennedy. Poppy (what Bush Sr. is called) tells him, “You’re a Bush. Act like it.”
W.’s life turns around because of two things: He marries Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and he finds God. In a scene in the church, W. tells his pastor that he feels a weight on him. The pastor (Stacy Keach) prays with him and asks God to shine light down upon W. Here things begin to change.
W. runs for governor of Texas. His parents raise objections. Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) makes it plain that they cannot help W. while Jeb is running for governor of Florida. W. tells them he doesn’t want their help and will run in spite of their objections. This is when Karl Rove (Toby Jones) enters the picture and becomes the other side of Bush’s brain. Bush charms the Joe Six Packs and Rove pulls the strings to get him elected.
While governor, W. calls in his pastor and he tells him that God has given him a vision to be the president. He says God told him that he would be president at a time when America would need him. The pastor again prays for Bush to follow the light.
This forces the blessing of the Bush family upon W. It was supposed to be Jeb’s, but W.’s fortunes rise quicker. As they do, we see the pain it places on Poppy. He has to watch as the one he chose gets passed over in the blessing. And it is clear he does not see his son as being worthy—of the blessing or the office.
But W. does take office, and in the run up to the Iraq War, Poppy is pained again by W.’s choices. When the war goes badly, an interviewer asks Poppy of his thoughts and we see the crux of the problem. He speaks of W. as “the boy.”
It’s hard for me to call this a “good movie.” There is such tragedy in it that to call it good would be bad. It is simply interesting. We see this uncouth person (in almost every scene, W. is talking with his mouth full of food) rise to the seat of power. And from that seat he launches a war that gets people killed. Oliver Stone projects that this is done for the sake of a son trying to win the approval of a distant father, who seems able to communicate only through note cards.
“W.” is also a treatise on how dangerous it can be to get the will of God mixed up with other things, even our own issues. George W. Bush, here, clearly wants to follow God’s will, but his own issues cloud the vision. And Stone does something important here: He doesn’t make fun of this, but presents it as tragic—the working out of family on a political stage.
I walked away from the film with great sympathy for the onscreen W.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Stanley Weiser
Cast: George W. Bush: Josh Brolin; Laura Bush: Elizabeth Banks; George H. W. Bush: James Cromwell; Barbara Bush: Ellen Burstyn; Karl Rove: Toby Jones; Dick Cheney: Richard Dreyfuss; Donald Rumsfeld: Scott Glenn; Earle Hudd: Stacey Keach.
The movie’s official Web site is here.