Getting Bush Right

Debating W., the Man and the Movie
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 21 2008 10:35 AM

Getting Bush Right

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Dear Oliver, Jacob, and Bob,

So, it begins—the first, cinematic rough draft of the Bush presidency: W. is now, as they say, at a movie theater near you. This is a rarity; as far as I can tell, there have been only two major feature films about a president (one on FDR and Cliff Robertson in PT-109) to fill the big screen during the term of the presidents who were their subjects. To this point, the first rough draft of history for this tumultuous period has, in large measure, been a pile of books. I've written three; Bob, you've written four; Jacob, you have one; and Seymour Hersh, Jane Mayer, Tom Ricks, and many others have made seminal, bound contributions. The Bush Library. It will grow. There will be many more volumes and plenty more movies.

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And, Oliver—if I may call you that—you have my admiration for relying on the Bush Library rather than indulging in supposition and dark fantasy. For a first cut, W. is an ardent, earnest, improvisationally fascinating effort that gives some narrative shape to this era's Shakespearean saga. Still, as someone who has read the key books (much less written a few), I found watching  W. to be a  strange, disembodying experience, two hours in a Cuisinart.

Things are sometimes mixed up—people say more or less what they really said, but in a different place. Yearlong Oval Office debates get boiled into a moment of heated exchange. Imagined yet plausible events stand alongside actual, often historic occurrences. But it's Hollywood. This is part of a conventional cinematic squeeze and squish, composting life into a progression of scenes, episodes, and incidents that leads to something.

The question is where. That's where matters get thornier, where questions of causation intrude about what intent or circumstances drive action. On balance, I thought the movie was a sound representation of the visible, widely known forces at play. Based on my reporting and that of others, I felt that Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld were eminently recognizable and that their positions were clearly, if briefly, articulated. The plot and dialogue revealed the basic nature of the characters—a real feat. You managed to reintroduce some of the world's most famous people to the audience.

This is one of the great values of this type of movie: Notable, often tendentious public figures can be freed from caricature. I think that happens here, especially with Bush (played by Josh Brolin), Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), and Powell (Jeffrey Wright). These are skilled actors, and they manage to make all three quite human and multidimensional. In fact, in the case of Bush and Cheney, many viewers may find themselves trying to resist the on-screen charms of this duo. I found this to be true in real life as well: Many people who've worked for and around both men say that Bush can be warm and charming and that Cheney, while frightening, is an oddly alluring, intelligent presence.

Yet I found one key—maybe the key—relationship to be exaggerated. The evidence, as it is now assembled, doesn't show "Junior" to be engaged in such a battle with "Poppy." Hell, if Bush 41 showed as much angry fortitude as he does in James Cromwell's impersonation, he probably would have won re-election in 1992. Bush the Elder's manhood is definitely not in a blind trust. Beyond that, in terms of dramatic coherence, I found it hard to believe that the loveless father-son tension, as portrayed in the movie, would lead to 43's vengeful outrage over Saddam Hussein's attempt to kill 41. (Besides, there are plenty of foiled assassination attempts on presidents; sort of comes with the job.) While this may have been overplayed, the missing actor in the life of W. was 9/11, along with a real disquisition about how, or whether, the catastrophic event changed Junior.

All of these questions, many unanswered, flow into the movie's central drama and denouement: the cause for war. What got us into Iraq? Why are we there? Did Bush know, or at least suspect, that there may not be WMD? Did the beast of Iraq spring, fully formed, from Bush's brain, from his Oedipal architecture? Did President Bush take this nation to war under false pretenses?

I realize, of course, that this question is in a sense unanswerable. The difficulty you face, Oliver, is one we all face. Five-plus years into this war—a war, most certainly, of choice—the reasons we invaded Iraq remain largely shrouded in classified files, lost conversations, carefully guarded secrets. Like the rest of us—from the most seasoned reporters to the tourists walking alongside the ornate iron fence on Pennsylvania Avenue—you had to make use of the prevailing best guesses.

That's why this movie—vivid, raucous, reality-based, well-acted—is a first cinematic rough draft. One of the movie's most jarring scenes, a real keeper in terms of the crisp dialogue and acting and gravity, is the moment Bush is told there are no WMD. He feels as if he's been conned, misled. He rages against his senior advisers. They look away. Rumsfeld takes a "screw you" bite of pecan pie.

Someday, with the arrival of new disclosures and fresh evidence, someone will rewrite this scene. Because Bush was not so much a victim of circumstances and birth order—or of bad advice from ambitious advisers—as he seems in W. He knew more than he's letting on. He made choices of his own free will. And in the fullness of time, he'll be held responsible for his actions, as history eventually demands of all presidents.

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