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W

For a move titled “W”, it would seem that more attention would be paid to the 43rd president.

Instead, the most interesting parts of “W” are when we get to see how those around him react to him. The narrative follows Bush the Younger (played uncannily by Josh Brolin), but in almost every scene he is–instead of the initiator– the catalyst that pushes the other characters to show us who they are.

We see Condi Rice being the obedient yes man, never offering an opinion and mirroring the President’s petulant rage when Brent Snowcroft– Brent Snowcroft, her mentor– writes about what a bad idea a war with Iraq is.

We see 41 (“Poppy”) saddened and confused and simply overwhelmed by the tide of history as he is swept aside despite “winning that war.” And to add insult to obvious injury, his screw-up son steps into office and, well, screws up.

We see Dick Cheney bring up torture over lunch (“Wow,” you think to yourself, “that guy is a dick”).

We see Donald Rumsfeld talk airily about everything, without ever touching ground or making much of a point.

But most impactfully, we see Colin Powell struggle as he is overruled and outgunned in his fight against the war. We see him deny himself in order to support the president, and we see him capitulate in the worst way at the worst moment. When Cheney tells him “I think you made the bigger boo-boo: you could have been president” (“Fuck you,” says Powell) we see both how much that cost us as a nation, and we realize deeply how painful such a Powell Presidency, unwilling to take a stand, could have been.

The history, of course, is chopped up into slaw and stirred liberally to put quotes in the wrong places and scenes in an orderly narrative line. But this is not a movie about history. If it were, it would feature the 2000 election as more than a throw away line. It would show how Karen Hughes balanced Karl Rove to season the conservatism with compassion. It would feature 9/11 as more than a talking point.

But “W” is about Dubya. And Dubya never cared that he squeaked into office. Karen Hughes had a single success– No Child Left Behind– and then faded into the background.

9/11 is, however, a notable omission. Bush was going nowhere before 9/11. It transformed Bush the man and Bush the presidency, and started both on the trajectory that the movie traces. But putting the events of that morning onscreen was, I think, simply unnecessary. It would have further polarized an already polarizing movie, and taken away focus on who the players were that reacted to the crisis. “W” is stronger because it doesn’t get distracted by the single biggest event of W’s presidency, and instead focuses on the long, messy aftermath.

And though we don’t see Bush as a man of action, we see how much his reactive worldview has hurt. He is content and even happy with these people who surround him, from the bumbling to the incompetent to the downright evil. By drawing the line between “the good guys” and “the bad guys” and assuming that he and everyone he knew was on one side, he let a profound opportunity slip by: he could have been a uniter. He could have been the compassionate everyman that led by example in dark times. He could have been the one who faced down evil and, by resolve and will, brought the world together and waited for the other guy to blink. George W. Bush could have been a great president. And this is the story of how he went about not being one.