Tim Walker – “Pass the pretzels – it’s Bush, the movie”


Pass the pretzels – it’s Bush, the movie
He put Nixon and JFK on screen. Now Oliver Stone has a living President in his sights. As the trailer for ‘W’ goes viral, Tim Walker says this biopic shouldn’t be misunderestimated

Tim Walker | July 31, 2008

Is it a Saturday Night Live skit? Is it the Dead Ringers Christmas Special? No – it’s the teaser trailer for W (pronounced, of course, “Dubya”), Oliver Stone’s forthcoming film about the 43rd US President, George W Bush.

Stone is an obsessive chronicler of modern American history. In the past, he’s given us movies about presidents, including the life of one (Nixon), and the death of another (JFK). He’s done movies about US campaigns in El Salvador (Salvador) and Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven & Earth); movies about the rise of unscrupulous capitalists (Wall Street), and the fall of the Twin Towers (World Trade Center). But W is a departure, even for him. A biopic of a sitting President, due for release on the eve of the next election, its producers even intend to advertise right alongside TV broadcasts for John McCain’s campaign.

Stone has called the film “satire”, “magic realism biography”, but also “a fair, true portrait of the man”. A leaked early draft of the script promises a story that jumps back and forth between Bush’s dissolute youth and his time in office, from driving his car on to his parents’ lawn and challenging his father to a fistfight, to almost choking to death on a pretzel while watching a football game, and telling the Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar that he’s given up sweets since the start of the Iraq War, as a “personal sacrifice to show support for our troops”. Is this comic material, or pure tragedy?

The teaser, which exploded across the internet this week, begins with a confrontation between George Sr and a young George Jr. “What are you cut out for?”, the 41st president demands of his son. “Partying? Chasing tail? Driving drunk? What do you think you are, a Kennedy?”

The trailer takes us straight to the fun stuff – finding out who’s playing who in Bush’s infamous entourage. Leading the cast is Josh Brolin as W. The artist formerly known as Barbra Streisand’s stepson is finally gaining the recognition he deserves, after participating in some of 2007’s biggest critical hits, No Country For Old Men, In the Valley of Elah and American Gangster. He’s a good choice for Bush; as the 90-second trailer demonstrates, he can play a range of ages, and although he’s better looking than the President, he’s a character actor, which means he can do likeable-but-flawed – perfect for Dubya. (Interestingly, his father, James, once played Ronald Reagan in a TV mini-series.)

Elizabeth Banks (last seen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) as First Lady Laura Bush is another solid piece of casting: innocuous, good looking but no knockout, and, like Brolin, she carries barely any distracting baggage from previous roles. “I just want to honour [Laura’s] voice, her stillness, and her hairstyle,” says Banks of the role. James Cromwell, meanwhile, was born to play Daddy Bush. He’s been a US president before, in the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears, and played another con-troversial patriarch, Prince Philip in The Queen.

Then we come to Ioan Gruffudd’s portrayal of Tony Blair, which makes you wonder whether Alastair Campbell had a hand in the casting, because, with due respect, Tone, Ioan’s younger, better-looking and has a more expensive dentist than you. And his hair looks oddly blonde, too, but perhaps that’s just the halo… Seriously, couldn’t they just have asked Michael Sheen to do it again?

Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Toby Jones as Karl “Turdblossom” Rove are all good fits, even if Wright is a little young as the conscience-stricken former secretary of state. Thandie Newton as Condi Rice looks like she has half a packet of Maltesers stuffed in her mouth. People often feel the need for silly make-up in a film like this, but Bourne baddie Scott Glenn, who looks very little like Don Rumsfeld, may have the right idea: in a biopic, it’s often better to look nothing like your famous character than to look slightly like them.

Bringing up the rear is Richard Dreyfuss as a rotund Dick Cheney. In the trailer, the Jaws star is barely recognisable inside a fat suit (or did he just bulk up on Freedom Fries for the part?). But Dreyfuss did a great job as a Republican scumbag in The American President, so we can legitimately foster high hopes for his Cheney.

As Oliver Stone says, Bush is “not your average president”. Indeed, his approval ratings are now around the 28 per cent mark – lower than any commander-in-chief since Nixon. So do we really want to see a film about a man of whom so many of us so thoroughly disapprove? Well, yes, actually. Especially the pretzel bit.


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