(Heroes season 2 spoiler—skip to the next paragraph if it bothers you.) After we got home from watching “W.” at the Alamo Drafthouse last night, we sat down and watched the last two episodes of “Heroes”, season 2. It was interesting, because both viewing experiences of the evening dealt with the same theme—not-evil people with great power and a sense of their own infallibility being led to do really evil things by truly evil people manipulating them for their own purposes. “W.” explored the theme a lot better, of course. Seriously, those last two episodes of last season would make me swear off the show if I wasn’t hearing good things about this season. But for those who’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that in “W.”, Bush is Peter Petrelli and Cheney is Adam Munroe, at least in their relationship to each other. Obviously, the producers of “W.” aren’t going to ask you to believe that George W. Bush is a good person saddled with messy emotions like empathy and grief, like Peter Petrelli. But they do ask you to look at him as someone who is basically too stupid to realize that he’s a pawn in everyone’s game.
History will argue forever about where George W. Bush fell on Roy Edroso “stupid/evil” scale. I’m a fan of the “more evil than stupid” camp, because Bush’s evil expands far beyond the Iraq War—pretty much everything he touches glows with evil intent, and his smirking contempt for people who try to ask him hard questions tends to preclude feeling like he’s just a dumb guy who wants everyone to like him. You have to decide what interpretation you will run with before an examination of this debacle of a presidency, though, and Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone choose stupid over evil. In order to make it work, they ignore major incidents in Bush lifetime that would demonstrate that Bush knows full well what he’s doing (because no one could be that stupid)—the vile campaigns against Ann Richards and John McCain, stealing the election from Al Gore by using (amongst other things) the threat of violence to shut down vote counting, and his obstinate refusal to give a shit about the residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And that’s just the cinematic evil. On paper, you can make a long and hairy list of the various ways he lies to get his way, lies that no one could be stupid enough to half-believe in, from his purported concern for women’s health while turning the HHS towards the task of fighting against women’s basic health care to his purported concern for education that was just a transparent ploy to reduce American public schools to rubble to his purported concern for people’s retirement savings that was just a transparent ploy to take all the hard-earned money sitting in Social Security and use it to enrich the already wealthy in a plot that would have, as we see, destroyed the nation’s retirement savings.
Weirdly, the way to make the easiest case of stupid over evil is to look at the post-9/11 “War on Terra” disaster. It’s easy to believe that a well-meaning man with certain blinders (such as blinding hatred of Saddam Hussein that drowns out even knowing if other dictators exist) would allow himself to be played by a bunch of “experts” with their own agendas. Well-meaning people can fix the evidence to fit a pre-ordained conclusion, if they really believe in the conclusion. Well-meaning people can condone torture and spying if they sincerely think it’s going to save lives. Well-meaning people can get wrapped up in fantasies that seem more reality than reality, such as the fantasy of bringing democracy to the Middle East on a bed of roses laid out for our tanks. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think the reason that they had to portray Bush as a deeply flawed man who meant well with regards to the War on Terra is because the character is a stand-in for our citizens who, in a rush of panic and hubris, went along with the Iraq War. They are mostly not bad people. They’re just victims of a confluence of panic, racist prejudices that equate one bad guy with another because they’re all Arabs, and the poison of having a little bit of knowledge they think is a lot, in this case thinking that all they needed to know about Iraq was that it was run by a vicious dictator that his own people would be glad to be rid of. I will say that I walked away from the movie with a small amount of my anger at my fellow citizens for playing along with this bullshit depleted. We cannot escape responsibility for our willful stupidity, I suppose, and our economic woes are part of this. But even now, thinking about the nationwide intoxication with willful ignorance, my chest tightens in anger. It’s human, but fundamentally, it’s inexcusable.
The best scene is “W.” is one of those that plays homage to the war room scenes in “Dr. Strangelove”—the one where Bush’s small group of advisers concoct the plan to invade Iraq, with a deadline for coming up with the bullshit reason to do it set so they can invade by March 10th. The reason the movie gives is that they wanted the weather to be less harsh on the troops, which is probably part of it, but I’m pretty sure the main reason for the hurry was an attempt to stop the weapons inspectors’ from doing their jobs, because if they finished the job, the excuse for the war would evaporate. Anyway, it’s the crucial scene. You see how people can rationalize lying to the public. You see how they bullied Colin Powell into going along. But most fascinatingly, you see how everyone in the room stares at this spot on the map called “Iraq” and projects what they want on it, which is absolutely true to real life. In real life, the Norquist conservatives saw Iraq as an ideal opportunity to set up a free market paradise and prove that it would work better than the mixed economies the rest of the world wants. For Bush, it’s pretty obvious that showing up his father was a big part of his motivation. The Rumsfelds and Rices of the world see it as an opportunity to justify their own self-image as tough guy warriors without having to do anything dirty like pick up a gun. Then there was the need to “do something” to get revenge—on anyone, apparently—for 9/11. You see the people around the table whipping each other into a frenzy of rationalization for this war they all want so badly, and then Dick Cheney (played awesomely by Richard Dreyfus) gets so excited he gets up and does what we all think probably happened, but we’ll never know for sure—he tells the truth. Iraq and Iran have a lot of oil. We want it. This could be the beginning of a new American empire, one that actually enriches the nation. Cheney is going to drink your milkshake. And everyone in the room freezes for a beat and then moves on as if they’re politely breezing over someone farting loudly in public. As a symbol of how an entire nation refused to admit the obvious about why we were invading Iraq, it’s brilliant. It makes up for a lot of the rest of the movie being so uneven.
That and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of George W. Bush. I doubt he’ll get Oscar consideration because he portrays Bush as a doofus, and comic turns don’t rewarded. But seriously, he completely owns the character. With almost all the rest of the actors playing administration officials we all know so well, there’s highs and lows where you find yourself thinking that they’re more caricature than character, but never with Brolin’s Bush. (Or, to be fair, Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush, but she’s not in the administration.) Brolin’s Bush is an asshole, but he’s an everyday asshole of the sort that is common enough in Texas. I’ve known guys like this my whole life—overgrown frat boys (with or without good ol’ boy tendencies) that have self images as highly funny, charming, intelligent people despite the fact they objectively are not funny, charming, or intelligent. What they are is extremely privileged, and so the rest of the world conspires to hide the ugly reality of themselves from themselves. The movie shows how this works to a T. Bush says something that’s not funny; everyone squeals with laughter. He says something not bright, and people gloss over it as if he made a brilliant observation. Women giggle at him and cast their eyes downward as if charmed by him, but mostly they are trained to flatter the egos of every white man of status they meet. Men like this will even test the world over and over, and you see it with Bush. Get into trouble with the law, have daddy clean it up. Get a girl pregnant, have daddy clean it up. Act like an ass, and marvel at how people gloss over it. Treat women you date or marry like shit, and watch them conspire to cover it up. They begin to believe it themselves, that they are as great as the world treats them. The only person that really stands up to Bush is his father, who tries to challenge him to live like a man who has earned his privilege, but that message will never take. Laura Bush stands up to him once, offering a genuine opinion on one of his speeches, and the tantrum he throws establishes his power and his birthright never to have a woman challenge him.
Is it any wonder that people who live in such a bubble are easy to manipulate? As Bush moves into politics, he gains a new crew of flatterers, but these swooners aren’t just acting out of a social obligation to make rich white men feel like they are god’s gift. They have agendas. This flattery of intelligence will be greeted with a directive to torture to sign. This fawning over authority will be used to butter someone up into lying about intelligence. This giggling feminine awe of his presence will be used to convince him that he doesn’t need the cooperation of the rest of the world. At its core, the movie is strongly anti-monarchy. People who didn’t have to earn their spots in the world are far more prone to surrounding themselves with flatterers with agendas, and no matter where you believe the real life Bush falls on the stupid/evil scale, it’s undeniable that this observation about his sense of self as a prince amongst men has led us to our current debacle.