W. deals with the challenges of the story of Bush the man versus the story of Bush the embarrassment to a nation by telling how a real man with an engaging story became a caricature and a disaster. The story begins with Bush at Yale, doing what most of us probably would do in his place and time. Ivy League schools in those days were less about merit than about polishing the heirs to the country in hopes that they wouldn’t blow it. Of course, Claire Danes, Julia Styles and the guy from Weezer get in to the Ivy Leagues today, as would any Coors or Kennedy born with so much as a brain stem. But the culture has changed and more pride is taken in inclusion and academic excellence than in exclusion and entitlement.
So take a free pass into Yale with a bunch of other guys who got free passes into Yale as your starting point. Add a name that erases DUIs and police records, inherited wealth and privilege regardless of merit or responsibility. Most likely, you wouldn’t behave all that differently than Bush did for his first few decades: parties, booze, floozies, food, cronies and an aversion to hard work. The empathy begins here, and it becomes easy to see how Bush was, and might have remained a likable, and even somewhat admirable guy. He’s funny, he knows your name, speaks frankly and has a rough charm. He’s a guy you’d want to know. As he pulls his shit together, he becomes a guy you might even want to work for. The film supports the often made suggestion that Bush might have made an excellent commissioner of Major League Baseball and non-President of the United States. He even finds Jesus in a likable way, weeping, conquering alcoholism and injecting a system of values into life of recklessness. Few films have ever portrayed religious zeal so sympathetically. Religion and love help to give Bush direction and purpose, which is great for him, if somewhat unfortunate for the rest of the world.
The film cuts back and forth between Bush’s earlier life and his presidency until the two merge. W. is always striving to understand, though not forgive, the horrible decisions of the administration. When Cheney finally lays all his cards on the table for an Iraq strategy, he makes a pretty good case if you accept his world view and adjust for American hubris. Here, as it occasionally does, the film takes it a step too far when Cheney explicitly calls for a classic empire. (There’s also a too much of what the W. character calls “psychobable.”) But the idea that there was no exit strategy because they always intended to stay, is far more credible than the notion that coming up with an exit strategy never occurred to anybody. Iraq was always meant to be an American beachhead for Cheney. Bush, is eager to relive the victory and (for him) simplistic morality of the cold war, So Iraq is also a benevolent domino that might spread freedom and democracy to oppressed peoples.
The WMDs? They are a selling point above all else. Cheney’s “one percent” argument on that front, while compelling, suggests he never expected to find any. As the justifications for the war for as something other than a naked power play fall apart and the plans for occupation fail, the cabinet’s staunchest hawks sit around and literally eat humble/pecan pie. However, don’t overlook the shots of Ted Kennedy and company grinning like idiots and clapping like seals as Bush spins tall tails of Saddam-Al Queda links and a nuclear Iraq.
These more biting and satirical moments are the film’s greatest. While the story of Bush’s pre-political life was more entertaining and engrossing, the transition to Bush, the fool who fouled the world, is more difficult and done brilliantly. The solution is simple enough. It’s not that Bush changes, it’s that he gets in over his head. While many critics complain that the film takes potshots at Bush, the facts couldn’t have been ignored. For example, Bush tends to misspeak horribly. A film about him that pretended otherwise would be dishonest, especially because he is the fucking president. But with the back story, and some middle scenes about his transition into politics, few of Bush’s faux pas feel like pot shots from the filmmakers. Rather, foibles that might have been endearing become alarming. If you see the film in a crowd laced with self-righteous idiots, as I did, they will laugh out of a sense of superiority at scenes that are not meant to be funny. Yes, there are times where we are meant to laugh at (and with) Bush, but not each one of his missteps is such a scene.
Another scene that’s been labeled a pointless pot shot comes when Bush famously chokes on a pretzel. Clearly, though, he’s not supposed to look like an idiot here. It’s a moment when a quarter of an inch or a few seconds might have changed everything. The Bush we get to know in the first half of the film is purely sympathetic as he faces death. Bush the propaganda icon, as presented in the Fox News parody and the dangerous joke that most of the world saw is less sympathetic. As the man who pushed for a needless war and as the guy who’s sense of responsibility and purpose made him far more dangerous than when he shamelessly drove drunk… It’s still hard to root for the pretzel, but it might have saved us from the maimed and charred bodies we face when the film steps out of CNN’s playpen in depicting the war.