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Sat 10 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Daddy's boy

"W" The cinematic portrayal of the outgoing US president paints a damning picture, says Damian Reilly.

"W" The cinematic portrayal of the outgoing US president paints a damning picture, says Damian Reilly.

Oliver Stone's biopic of George W Bush, W, has met with criticism from all quarters. The liberal film-going public, it seems, was fervently hoping for something more coruscating, more vitriolic, more legacy-ending. They bought their tickets, and they came to bury, not to understand. They missed the point.

Stone's film - which portrays its subject with equanimity, rather than fevered bias - holds Bush up for exactly what he is, and is consequently far more damning an indictment of both the man and the society that elected him twice (arguably) than a film which showed him sitting at the right hand of Beelzebub. Besides, that's where Dick Cheney sits, isn't it?

Stone isn't respectful of Bush, rather he tries to tear away the hubris that surrounds the President of the United States of America, all the better to reveal just how average, or sub-average, the man who has ruled the world since 2001 is.

At one point, Bush is seen sitting on the lavatory, shouting both his frustrations and his career plans through the open doorway to his wife Laura, who waits for him in the marital bed. That's not to say it is that type of film. Typically, it places its hatchets with far more subtlety.

Over the course of two hours, what we see is not a man with horns growing beneath the hair on his head, but an, at times charismatic, fool who was carried by his surname through his indulgent youth and early adulthood, a man who failed at everything he did, until somehow he came to occupy the position of ultimate power.

The film makes clear that Bush could never have risen so high were it not for the prestige and influence of his surname - a name whose reputation was some two hundred years in the making.

Where George Bush senior is shown to have been the embodiment of all the promise of that name, a man whose greatness shines through in all that he does, junior is far inferior in every regard.

As Stone has it, and many others for that matter, it is awe of his father that defines ‘Dubya.' Bush senior was a scholar, a remarkable athlete in his youth, and a war hero.

A man in control. Dubya's past is a litany of anti-greatness: alcoholism, draft dodging, lack of intellect or rigour, and incurious religious fervour.

History will remember Dubya for the apocalyptic mess in the Middle East, little else. In the film, the damage he has done to his family's name is visited upon him in his darkest nightmare, when his father, played splendidly by James Cromwell, gives him both barrels in the Oval Office.

Intertwining Bush's chaotic youth with his later unlikely rise in politics, the film depicts a coltish, immature man's development, from the frat house, where he is very much at ease, to the complexities of the Oval Office.

The trajectory of character development is consistent, much to Stone's credit. Bush senior keeps trying to find his son a job. Dubya keeps walking away, incapable of hard work or application.

Dubya is comfortable in the frat house because there he has all that is required to succeed; wealth and a ‘jock' mentality. Stone makes it clear that Bush got into his prestigious universities - Yale and Harvard - by dint of his surname and nothing else.

In the White House, of course, he is not at ease, because the problems he is charged with presiding over and rectifying will not be categorised into his black and white world view.

The flaws in his efforts to reduce decision making to such a simple procedure - typified in his asinine pronouncements about an "axis of evil," or countries being "either with us or against us" - are abundantly apparent in Stone's depiction of the scratchy and impulsive case, ultimately apocryphal, made by the President for the invasion of Iraq, and in his comic attempts to corral other world leaders, by telephone from his ranch, into aligning themselves with America militarily.

Bush is depicted at times as a puppet, held under the sway of Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. At one point, the President in private asks Cheney to "keep his ego in check," to defer to him in meetings. "Because, remember, in there I am the decision maker."

The disgust on Cheney's face at these words is palpable. Rumsfeld - who talks often in doublespeak (on WMDs in Iraq, for example: "The absence of proof is not the proof of absence") - is shown to be adept and practised at manipulating the President's thought processes.

In fact, little manipulation is needed. Bush junior is mad keen for war from the film's get go. He orders it in the first scene, and then commands all in the room to join him in a prayer session.

Colin Powell is often shown trying manfully to talk the President down from military aggression, but he is no match for the combined cunning of Cheney and Rumsfeld. Stone's Cheney has his eyes on America's position in the world for the next millennium, and will not be averted.

The exit strategy for the Iraq invasion? In the subterranean war council, Cheney says it slowly: "There is no exit strategy."

Josh Brolin deserves an Oscar for his performance. He captures Bush masterfully, tics and all. His Bush is swaggering at parties, ignorant and lost in conference with the evangelical Christians, and out of his depth in the Presidency. In fact, with the exception of Thandie Newton whose Condoleezza Rice is too simpering, and Jeffery Wright as Colin Powell, all of the cast turn in stellar performances.

How fitting that this film is released now, as the Bush days close out, and he is replaced by his antithesis in office. Stone has taken a calculated risk by rushing to put his film out before the whole drama has actually finished.

Inevitably, there will be a raft of these movies in the years to come. They will have their work cut out if they are to better this.