When Oliver Stone — the self-appointed liberal historian of contemporary America — first announced he was making a film about George W. Bush, I’m sure conservatives everywhere put their faces in their hands and groaned. Even now I’m sure most haven’t bothered to see “W.,” which was released in theaters more than a week ago and has more or less failed at the box office among a flurry of perplexed, astonished and outright angry reviews.
None of this surprises me. Conservatives have enough to be miserable about as the likelihood of having another conservative president in office slides further and further away. Meanwhile, any film that tackles a subject as controversial as Bush is bound to generate ire and admiration from critics in equal measure.
In fact, “W.” is a pretty frivolous film, one that shouldn’t upset anybody. If anything, it follows the same pattern many contemporary political histories have taken for the past couple of decades, and will probably set the tone for the way in which Bush will be viewed by the public in the years to come.
Take the liberal fascination with Richard Nixon, for example. Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland,” an excellent literary account of the Nixon years, and Stone’s earlier film on the subject, “Nixon,” are both examples of liberals attempting to explore the complicated psyche of one of contemporary politics’ most controversial figures.
Now, Bush joins the ranks of Nixon as another fallen conservative idol dissected and dramatized by a liberal author.
It’s true what many critics have said about “W.”: Its portrayal of Bush is a sympathetic one. That said, it’s not a positive one. In the film, Bush, as portrayed by Josh Brolin, is dumb, dumb, dumb. But he’s likeable. Certainly, he’s not the villain of the film.
So where did this come from? For the past few years, Bush’s depiction in the media has steadily mutated from a dimwitted wannabe-cowboy into a maniacal ideologue. Suddenly, Stone, a leading leftist ideologue in his own right, has come out with a film that portrays Bush as a beleaguered everyman, burdened by the constant dissatisfaction of his father, his alcoholism and his career failings. This is the man much of the public has made out to be “the bad guy”?
What Stone has done with Bush is what Perlstein and other liberal authors throughout the years have done with Nixon: He has crafted Bush into a tragic figure.
In an essay published in The New Republic called “The Movement’s Remains,” Sam Tanenhaus addressed the recent trend of liberal scholars writing about the history of conservatism, which he described as “rich in rebellious appetites, in unexpected victories, in stimulating characters.” His examples included “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” author Thomas Frank and Perlstein.
Tanenhaus made one interesting point about Nixon, claiming the man was, out of all the contemporary American presidents, “most like us, in his doubts and insecurities.” This is the reason why so many writers, even liberal ones, have latched onto him as a great subject for their books, and probably does a great deal in explaining why Stone approached Bush in the manner he did. Like Nixon, Bush is relatable.
But this still leaves the question, “Why?” Why bother at all, especially if Bush is still in office and so many people are bound to be furious at this portrayal of him as a misunderstood nitwit?
The answer, at least as far as I can tell, is that Bush is no longer a threat. In a couple months Bush will be out of office, and a Democrat will probably have replaced him. There’s no longer any reason to demonize the man: Even in the eyes of Stone, apparently, he has suffered enough. Like Nixon, Bush will go from being Public Enemy No. 1 to a key subject for all kinds of psychological literature, plays and films.
And, with “W.,” Oliver Stone has put himself at the forefront of this movement. It’s hard to say whether or not it will really be influential — again, the film hasn’t made a huge impact at the box office. But it’s surely a precursor to what we’ll see in the future when it comes to the way the media views our current president.
Brandon Conradis can be reached at email@example.com.