..Maggie Roush..

How Did We Get Here?
Oliver Stone Looks Back Fondly at the Here and Now

As our increasingly invisible president squanders his last irrelevant weeks at the White House, before joining his father, Bubba, and J.C. in the Ex-Presidents Turned Beloved Philanthropists Club, I would like to say one thing.

Unlike a lot of young progressives I know, I don't hate and have never hated George W. Bush.

Now, now, quiet down. Don't worry — I voted for Obama. (Duh, didn't everybody?) I voted for Kerry in 2004, and might have voted for Gore had I been old enough. Yes, I'm included in the 68 percent of the country who "disapproves" of our 43rd president and is offended by his policies and the Orwellian doublespeak logic he has used to justify them.

But the truth is this: My eye does not twitch when I hear him speak in his folksy Texas twang. My brow does not furrow at the sight of those deer-in-headlights eyes that dopy grin. I don't even have the urge to grit my teeth when I hear him struggle with pronunciation, utter one of his classic malapropisms or let escape one of his shoulder-shaking breathy laughs. To be honest with you, if I heard it now, I'd probably laugh along with him.

When it comes to George W. Bush, I have long felt a sort of sympathetic kinship with him, as if he were some troublesome uncle, whom I really like despite his prejudices, fanatical evangelism, and drinking problem. Genuine, sensible, not quite bookish, but not stupid either, and with a number of wildly outdated perspectives, he might have made a great small business owner or a respectable farmer. I've looked at him many times over the past eight years, as he ineptly struggles with questions from the press, and wondered: "How did this poor guy get himself into this mess?"

A similar question was the premise for Oliver Stone's recent film W., though Stone may have asked it with a touch less sympathy. Something like: What in this world could have led George W. Bush — a frat boy, a drunk, a guy who couldn't hold a job, an all-around screw up — to become president of the land of the free and the home of the brave?

From the moment I saw one of the trailers for W. — a montage of scenes that take us from W's early adulthood, dancing on a bar, getting arrested, crashing his car, sparring with his father, to scenes from his days as president, juxtaposed with real news clips of Saddam Hussein, air bombings in Iraq, and crowds of war protestors, all set to the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" — I knew I had to see this movie. Not only did it promise to shed light on into the character of George W. Bush. It also seemed like it would be a rollicking democracy-spreading good time!

Something of an extension of the montage itself, the film shifts between scenes that feature W and his team of advisors — Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rove — sorting out the justification and the "plan" for the Iraq War, to scenes snatched from W's bumbling, angst-y, and drunken path from Yale to the Texas oil rigs, the Texas Rangers, the governor's mansion, a religious awakening, and finally to the White House. Each individual scene is sweetened with a delightfully complex tone, a combination of comic satire, eerie close-to-home realism, and good old fashioned fun, epitomized in Josh Brolin's fantastic and entirely believable caricature of our real president.

At many moments the realism is disarming. In one scene W is being doused in ice water, as a newbie frat boy, when somebody asks him: "Are you following in your father's footsteps there, Bushie?" W responds: "Hell no! No way in the world I'd wanna do that!" Sure, it's humorous made-up dialogue, but how unlikely is it that he said those exact words at least once in his life? In a later scene W speaks to his father, "Poppy" Bush, on a pay phone after being arrested for his raucous celebrations following a Yale baseball victory. W is able to successfully redirect the conversation to his father's glory days a generation prior, as a member of one of Yale's best baseball teams of all time. Though H. W. realizes his son's bait-and-switch dialogue, he allows himself to momentarily ruminate on the memory, before sternly telling young W that he will help him out of trouble this time but never wants to put in a situation like this again. I have no trouble believing that a scene similar to this true-to-life moment took place between the real Bushes.

One reason that these and so many other events in the film appear realistic is that Stone has painted them with a very broad brush. By leaving out details, Stone offers an impressionistic picture of Bush's life, setting a tone is simultaneously plausible and absurd. For example, in the film's first scene, which depicts W and his advisors debating the use of the phrase "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech (ultimately, W settles on the phrase because it is catchy and direct), I had two conflicting reactions. On one hand, I was conscious of the fact that surely — SURELY — discussions leading up to that pivotal speech were more nuanced that those presented here, where every advisor rattles off the boiled-down version of his or her position: Colin Powell, played by Jeffrey Wright, is the consummate naysayer, pleading that the U.S. wait for the United Nations to finish their inspections, while Cheney, played by Richard Dreyfuss, expresses the view that the U.S. has no choice but to go to war, and Rove, played by Terry Gamble, points out the practical political implications of every possible course. The real deal must have been more complicated than this, I told myself.

But as I watched the men utter their one-liners, a shiver ran up my spine and I thought to myself: Wait, maybe it was just this simple. Sure there were probably more words said, more time taken, but the skewed logic that drives the decisions of this fictional Bush team feels quite real and familiar. After all, wasn't "axis of evil" the right choice because, as W says, it flowed nicely off the tongue? Of course it was!

Fixed in this dystopic world, where absurdity mirrors reality, the film is perhaps notable for the things that it doesn't do. For one, it doesn't try to drive home any specific point. One might have expected from Stone a harsh critique of Bush as a man or a politician, but the film doesn't really do that. In fact Brolin's W is a mostly likable protagonist. When he first runs for congress in his hometown in Texas, we want him to win and are disappointed when he fails. We are behind him when he vows never to be "out-Texased or out-Christianed" again.

Indeed, stripping away the details, the storyline is an incredibly simple and sympathetic one: a common man spends his life trying to live up to the high expectations of his father, but finds a way to disappoint him. One of Stone's main points, of course, is that W's need to live up to his father is the driving force behind all of his actions including his decision to invade Iraq and go all the way to Baghdad. As viewers, we may not agree with this decision, but we might able to sympathize with the subconscious desire to make our fathers proud.

But while Stone presents W as sympathetic, he refrains from delving very deeply into his or any other character's psyche. Therefore another series of unanswered questions revolves around the identities of the people involved in this story. Who are these people, really? And who is Bush, aside from the son of his father? For most of the movie, we assume that the film is being presented to us from W's point of view, but really, there's not enough of his interior for that to be the case. We are as taken aback as W is, when he struggles to answer the journalist's question in the truly tragic final press conference.

The most important unanswered question is the one that forms the basis of the film: How did we get here? Presented out of chronological sequence, each of the scenes in W. is only tangentially connected to the others, leaving unaddressed questions of cause and effect. Like a skilled politician — like Bush himself — Stone has avoided the tough questions of "why?" and instead presented a kind of distracting, pleasing, and only loosely connected sideshow.

So if W. is neither an outright comedy, a straight-up critique of number 43, nor a biography, what is it? W. is a cultural artifact, a set of snapshots of real, semi-real, and surreal events, which, though we may not have been a part of our personal experience, feel familiar nonetheless.

By memorializing and satirizing these all too-close-to-home moments, Stone has thrust them into the annals of history (with a lowercase h) well before their time. Stone's greatest accomplishment, therefore, can be summed up in one seemingly out of place word: nostalgia. Nostalgia — "a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past," — is usually felt about a) something good and b) something that already happened. Stone has somehow managed to elicit a sense of nostalgia in his viewers about a) something that was not very good and b) something that is taking place right now: the Bush Presidency.

"So it goes," as Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five would say. And as Brolin as W remarked: "In history we'll all be dead." Before that though, someday we — you, me, and George W. Bush himself — will look back at these last eight years, smile fondly and shake our heads. I'm sure of it. And by watching Stone's W. now, you can get a head start.

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