Monday, November 22, 2010

W. -- approval, disappointment and conversion

Director: Oliver Stone, 2008. (PG-13) 

Oliver Stone is not afraid to tackle controversial topics. His resume include two Viet Nam war films, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, as well as two on presidents, JFK and Nixon. But this is the first time he focused on an in-office president, George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States.

W. presents the story of "Dubya", switching between the backstory of his growth from undergraduate at Yale to Governer of Texas and the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Along the way we realize that Bush was the product of his father in more ways than one, and was a man who may have made it to the White House but seemed to be in above his head. Of course, this is a biopic and so includes fictionalized segments alongside real events, such as the infamous choking pretzel scene (which bookends the film).

The film opens with Bush being hazed by the "good old boys" of Yale. Semi-naked and standing in ice-cold water, he has whiskey poured down his throat, a reference perhaps to the practice of waterboarding that was forced on inmates of Guantanamo (or renditioned prisoners elsewhere). But as the young Bush (Josh Brolin) grows up we see the older Bush, Poppy (James Cromwell), manipulating things behind-the-scenes to help his wayward son: bailing him out of jail, taking care of a pregnant girlfriend, getting him a job. As he says to the younger Bush, "Partying, chasing tail, driving drunk. What do you think you are -- a Kennedy?"

This brings up one of the themes present in the movie: the legacy of a family name. The elder Bush is concerned that his family leave a legacy for future generations, and a good one at that. We all want to be remembered for something good. Poppy was no different, although he was a president and a successful patriarch. David, in the Old Testament, a patriarch and king wanted this for his family. Although most of his children and decendants turned away from his faith and were disappointments, one came as the Messiah. David's legacy was legendary. How is yours?

As Bush fails in one j after another, he finds one he enjoys: owner of a baseball team. We see him dreaming of being a player. But he has no talent for the ball-game. His talents lie elsewhere, and he begins to develop his political ambitions and accomplishments. Along the way, he meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), and woos and weds her.

In the other storyline, Bush is surrounded by a cadre of political advisors. Here the film sizzles with outstanding actors. Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell; Scott Glenn (Secretariat) plays Donald Rumsfeld; Thandie Newton is razor-sharp as Condoleeza Rice; and Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) is a scintillating Dick Cheney, portrayed here as the villain pushing for invasion. And there is dimunitive Toby Jones as Karl Rove, the puppeteer behind the president. But at the heart of the film is Josh Brolin, giving an astounding performance as Bush, capturing his quirks and even sounding like the man.

Another key theme of the film is approval. Not the approval of the public, although the president needs to understand this when he is in office. Rather, the approval here is that of Poppy. Dubya has big shoes to fill, and he is constantly seeking the approval of his dad. Yet, he never seems to get it. How often do we men seek the approval of our fathers. Do we get it? When we don't it hurts our psyche. But even if our fathers fail us in this regard, our heavenly Father never does. He loves us unconditionally and unceasingly (Psa. 100:5).

Approval is one thing, disappointment is another. Rather than approval, Bush junior feels the disappointment that oozes from his father. Several times, Poppy verbalizes this to his son. How tough is that, for a man to know he is a disappointment to his father? As fathers, we must realize how fragile our sons' pysches can be. And if we are disappointed with them, we should determine how we can help them rather than hurt them even more. Poppy thought he was helping with his behind-the-scenes manouverings, and they did help politically. But what W. wanted more than anything was to hear his father say he loved him and was proud of him. Have we told our sons this lately? If not, why not do so today?

In the backstory of Bush's political emergence, we see him come to Christ. In a low-key scene, W. professes faith in Jesus. This is something his father does not understand or really acknowledge. Later, W. tells his pastor that he feels the Lord is leading him to be president. Although we see him as President concluding meetings with silent prayer, it is not obvious that Christ is the person directing Bush. Instead, Karl Rove appears to be that person, orchestrating Bush's rise to power.

Like George W Bush, we all face a decision to convert to Christ or not. Jesus loves us and wants us to come to know him. As the apostle Paul said, "now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). There is never a better time. Don't put it off any longer. And if you have already made that decision, then live it out daily following Jesus, seeking his guidance and approval.

One of the disappointments of W.  is the lack of insight into Bush himself. We see his exterior but not his interior. He remains a mystery, an empty enigma. Two scenes at the close of the film, both dream sequences, show us the continued disappointment and emptiness of the man. Yet Stone leaves multiple balls in the air, as Bush looks skywards wondering. The question at the end remains: who is W.?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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