Watching Oliver Stone's W. spurred me to revisit the director's 1991 film JFK. I wanted to remind myself what an important film Stone could make when he was taking risks, or at least was presenting a provocative interpretation of events that we thought we understood.
JFK remains a deeply disturbing film that encourages us to think big and dig beneath the familiar surface. Stone stormed the formidable barricades around an assassination story that has become encrusted in orthodoxy over the years. He raised the question harbored by many Americans: Should we ignore the multiplicity of powerful interests with deep antagonism toward John Kennedy? He made us think about how little we really understand transformative events officially characterized as simply the work of disturbed loners.
His nearly twenty-year-old blockbuster led to a public clamor for answers, and an overwhelming congressional vote to release long-hidden government files on the assassination. This in turn spurred on a fresh cadre of researchers, and fostered healthy debate. In many respects, then, JFK was a brave and important motion picture.
But W. is Stone at his most tepid and superficial -- a filmmaker pedaling backwards. It offers little more than a modestly entertaining and unambitious portrayal of George W. Bush and his family -- with moments of excessive "balance" that have surprised reviewers. We can shake our head at this woefully flawed prodigal son making his way to the top -- and at the painfully apparent consequences of this unfortunate success story, most notably the invasion of Iraq. The principal appeal of Stone's W. is a chance to laugh - or curse - at many of the old anecdotes. But in the process, it offers almost none of the insight or revelation that we have come to expect from a Stone production.
Sad to say, when one gets past the pleasure of I-told-you-so, Stone's W. reflects a lethal lack of curiosity about the 43rd president -- and the general lack of deeper understanding of what lies behind the success of the Bush dynasty. Stone also perpetuates the notion that the rise of a mediocre man means that the story of that rise is somehow itself insignificant. That assumption is wrong -- dangerously so. It is the costly mediocrity of George W. Bush, and indeed of his father before him, taken in tandem with the fateful changes they wrought, that ought to compel a closer, far more serious look, well beyond the smirks and the laughs, the familiar platitudes and the inability to swallow a pretzel.
"People don't know a lot about him," Stone told the New York Times' Richard Berke. "That presidency was veiled and hidden from the public view..." Yet Stone's W. shows no desire to probe what George W. Bush's disastrous rise really meant -- only a rush to put it behind us and move on.
That's the crucial question, and the answers go deeper than most of us suspect. I have spent the last four years interviewing hundreds of sources and examining some thousands of documents in an effort to understand how this most improbable of leaders was elected -- and re-elected -- the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. What I found as I wrote my forthcoming book, Family of Secrets (Bloomsbury), was that the very improbability of Bush's success hides an even more improbable and unknown story -- a story full of the kind of drama and geopolitical intrigue that made JFK such a riveting film.
Many of the signature episodes of W's life -- with their orthodox interpretation accepted by Stone -- were in fact carefully constructed falsehoods, or exaggerated and then spun to great effect. These range from the alleged "mano a mano" incident in which he purportedly challenged his father to a fistfight, to his religious conversion that won him the evangelical vote. The film scratches at a crucial topic -- the continuity of figures from the administration of Bush senior to that of Bush junior -- but does little to establish what this meant. In fact, the story of W. reminds us anew that political leaders are not lone rangers on the historical stage. They are shaped, constrained and pushed constantly by powerful forces, the role of which we rarely consider or discuss.
The strength of JFK was its vivid (and highly cinematic) rendering of the military-industrial complex, the more extreme manifestations of the intelligence apparatus, and the intermingling of the state with so-called lawless elements. I found some of these same forces at work in the Bush phenomenon. There even are links between the Kennedy and Bush destinies (and those of the Bushes and Richard Nixon, himself another former Oliver Stone subject) that I could not have thought possible when I began my inquiries.
Because understanding the true nature of power is too important to be done on the fly, it is crucial that we not let Stone's film be the final word on this remarkable chapter in American history. Nor should we dismiss W. himself as an aberration from which we will easily recover once he is gone.
Here are just a few of the subjects the Stone movie might have addressed, or at least raised questions about: What was the truth about the "Rathergate" affair concerning the mysteries of Bush's military service record gaps, which led to the professional demise of one of America's most celebrated newsmen and resulted in a pall of silence falling over journalism in general? Did the man who ordered thousands of Americans to deadly service in a trumped-up conflict in Iraq actually complete his own military service, or didn't he?
What was W's real relationship with his father -- without whose own lightly-examined political rise he would never have become president? What of the rumors that the Bush family has a deep and ongoing relationship with the intelligence establishment, predating 1976, when the elder Bush became CIA director as a purported "intelligence virgin?" What's the real story behind the incompetence in government that made Hurricane Katrina much more of a disaster than it needed to be? Why, really, did Bush and his administration go into Iraq, and why is there still no consensus on the true purpose of this disastrous gambit? Who wanted him to do it, and why?
The truth about W., his family, and the forces behind them is far darker than even the most jaded among us probably has imagined.
Maybe the old Oliver Stone can come back to shoot a sequel.
Investigative journalist Russ Baker is the author of Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means For America, to be published January 6, 2009. Now available for pre-order at Amazon.com.