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Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in the Oliver Stone film W. BOOKS THE CULTURE Misfortunate Son BY DAVID THEIS W. directed by Oliver Stone H as anyone ever been more fascinating on account of his limitations, rather than his strengths, than George W. Bush has? The unreflective gut-player has inspired a library of books, a shelf of documentaries, and now an Oliver Stone film. \(He has also been fictionalized in Curtis Suttenfeld’s Most of the interest is attributable to the havoc he and his administration have wrought at home and abroad. People want to understand these perilous times. But there is a further fascination with the Decider himself. At first blush, the curiosity he evokes seems purely condescending: “How did that mental and moral midget become the mighty POTUS?” Does Bush inspire reactions other than straightforward contempt and fury? Now that he’s about to exit the scene, are we still interested in knowing who he is, possibly even feeling sympathy for him? The notion would have been unthinkable four years ago as he rode waves of self-stirred fear and loathing to re-election. He was able then to laugh off the idea that future historians might judge his presidency harshly with the words, “In history we’ll all be dead:’ Four short years later, history has already squashed Bush like a bug. The question remains as to whether he understands how badly he’s damaged four reputations: his own, his family’s, the Republican Party’s, and most importantly, the country’s. Watching Bush address the current economic crisis, his brow now deeply lined but still curiously unworried, one doubts it. It looks like he doesn’t get it, never got it, and never will. Such titanium-plated ignorance may be the last of his seemingly boundless good luck. You could make a movie about that guy, the man who is willfully and powerfully clueless to the destruction he’s wrought. That movie might end by showing how carefully he’s sealed himself off from reality and how this isolation, while damaging him beyond repair, does at least allow him to get out of bed in the morning. That movie would be an austere tragedy in the manner of the first two Godfather movies \(especially in which we see with unusual clarity how thoroughly Michael Corleone’s wielding of power cuts him off from life. Oliver Stone and writer Stanley Weiser \(who also scripted 1987’s take a different approach. Broadly speaking, they have conceived their tragic hero as Fredo Corleone rather than Michael, reimagining Bush as a weak, out-of-hisdepth sibling who improbably seizes familial power and, along with it, the destiny that rightly belongs to his brother Jeb. History is the filmmakers’ guide here. This Fredo-to-the-top scenario is pretty much what really happened. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The film, which feels unusually restrained for an Oliver Stone production, opens on dual tracks. We see President his infamous Axis of Evil State of the Union address, then jumps back to Yale in 1966, where young Bush \(also played pledges cower naked inside barrels while vodka is funneled into their mouths every time they answer a trivia question wrongly. The scene, with its bleached-out lighting, looks like an outtake from Saw, and the fraternity men seem genuinely threatening. You could die during one of these sessions. In this way, Stone points to a dark future, connecting the dots between fraternity hazing and Bush-authorized torture. \(In 1967, Bush defended fraternity “branding” practices involving physical beatings and burning flesh; as president, he dismissed allegations of prisoner abuse Brolin also makes an early show of Bush’s political gifts in this scene: He’s spared the worst of the humiliation because, unlike his fellow pledges, he can rattle off the names of the made menthe frat boys, that iswho want to pour vodka down his gullet until he pukes. 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 31, 2008