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1:47:03 No WMDs

Muffing It

By Vrinda Jagota

[1] Based on a number of real interactions between Bush and his cabinet members, Oliver Stone creates a pivotal scene in the film at 1:47:03, showing the tragic unraveling of the Bush administration. After the bombastic “Axis of Evil” speech and numerous scenes glorifying the invasion of Iraq, we see the indignant and self-centered response of the advisors when it becomes apparent that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This scene is Stone's most obvious criticism of the Bush administration, since he paints the advisors as unwilling to take responsibility for their actions, and he shows Bush as clueless and misled.

[2] The scene is essentially a conversation between Bush and one of his lesser-known advisors, David Kay, who only appears in this one scene in the film. Kay was a former weapon’s inspector for the UN, and under the Bush administration he worked with the CIA and the military as the head of the Iraq Survey Group to determine whether or not Iraq possessed nuclear weapons. Much of Kay’s dialogue is based on public statements he made when and just after he resigned from office in January 2004. He explicitly stated then that he didn’t think weapons of mass destruction ever existed in Iraq. Kay’s resignation was a blemish on the reputation of the Bush Administration, and he was even pressured to wait until after Bush’s inauguration in January 2005 to resign. He said publicly that Bush and his other advisors should come clean to the American people and that their reluctance to do so was delaying necessary reforms within the USA’s intelligence agencies. This specific scene itself is based on an actual lunch that Kay had in the White House with Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Andy Card, and Bush after his resignation.

[3] The scene has four parts: 1) Bush gets the facts about the failed search for nuclear weapons; 2) Kay assigns responsibility for the grave mistake the assembled administrators made; 3) climactically, Bush expresses shock, Kay resigns, the cabinet stonewalls; and 4) the camera pans across the cabinet members’ blank faces, further emphasizing their inaction and inability to take responsibility.

[4] In the first part Bush asks Kay a series of logical questions about what exactly went wrong with the invasion, questions that get increasingly more specific and pressing. After Kay reports they have not found nuclear weapons, for instance, Bush asks reasonably why Hussein would lie about having them, and Kay answers that it was to protect his own “Superman” image in the eyes of his people. Finally, Bush asks the blockbuster question: “How could the CIA, all our intel people, completely muff this?” Essentially, here, Stone’s Bush asks the obvious questions the American public was asking, the questions his current and future audience will want answered. How did we screw up?

[5] This conversation is almost heartbreaking to watch, because we are literally observing the unraveling of everything Bush worked for. After watching so many scenes in which Bush was triumphantly positive about his decision to invade Iraq, this scene dramatically reveals that he was falsely proud. It is especially saddening because, in Stone’s view, the war was a means for Bush to prove himself a stronger man than his father, and yet in the image of the impotent Bush here we are immediately reminded of an earlier scene in which a pathetic Bush Senior cries after losing his re-election bid.

[6] The second part of the scene transitions from Kay addressing questions of what happened to the lethal question of who was responsible for what happened. The advisors all react differently, but their motives are essentially the same -- they defend themselves, they avoid taking any responsibility. George Tenet is silent, his face blank, expressionless, made of stone. Rice protests, swearing on the thousands of weekly reports she received. Donald Rumsfeld gobbledygooks almost incoherently about the lack of metrics to gauge success -- which, of course, is inaccurate, since the basic premise for war, Iraq’s possession of nuclear weapons, is clearly incorrect.

[7] The final cabinet member to speak is Cheney. His response is the most embarrassing and difficult to watch. Like Rice, he is extremely defensive. Cheney tells Kay that he sent him pictures of caves that could be used to hide nuclear weapons, to which, devastatingly, since Cheney is considered the “true brains” behind the Bush administration, Kay responds that these trenches were actually watering holes for cattle. (The only major player not to speak is Colin Powell, who had been against the war from the beginning. He seems much less guilty than the rest of the advisors, and had Stone not included a scene in which Powell told the UN that there were definitely weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we would see him as a completely innocent character instead of a halfhearted co-conspirator, one who, reluctantly, played along, allowing himself to be used.)

[8] Bush’s explosive response to Cheney’s grave and unforgivable mistake is justifiable anger, an anger that Stone renders, with interesting effect, through an actual “Bushism” from another occasion. The Bushisms -- Bush’s propensity to twist the English language with mispronunciations or grammatical infelicities -- were a source of derisive fun at the president’s expense, and there is a scene earlier in the film where Stone strings four or five of his most famous ones together for exactly that purpose, to make Bush sound like a dimwit unworthy to be president. But here, however, when Bush says “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . . and, and, you can’t get fooled again,” we feel sorry for him. He is clearly so flustered and agitated by the news that he cannot speak correctly. As viewers, we do not sympathize with him -- it is still obvious that he made a mistake -- however, we do empathize. He’s human, not just someone to laugh at or to hate, and we understand where he is coming from. He is portrayed as different from the rest of his cabinet members, who are all unfazed by the news.

[9] This third part of the scene distances Kay from the cabinet as well, for he accepts responsibility and -- the fitting noble gesture -- resigns: “I’m sorry, Mr. President. We thought he had WMDs, but we were all wrong about him, and I include myself. Our system, the integrity of it, has broken down completely, and I have never traded access for integrity, and I am obligated to resign.” Hear the “we.” Hear the “I.” Kay indicts the “we” sitting in the very room with him, but only he resigns. Bush’s anger and Kay’s ethics distance them from the cabinet, who are so morally isolated from the consequence of their actions that they are content to continue to enjoy, as the camera repeatedly and indelicately shows us, that best ever (according to Rumsfeld) pecan pie while their cowardice is revealed.

[10] In the last part of the scene, the camera once again pans across the faces of all the advisors. When it stops on Rice, there is a light that shines on her face. It signifies a moment of enlightenment. The truth has come out, but she remains silent. Throughout the film, she was always at Bush’s side, feeding him what he wanted to hear. Now she cannot do that because the truth about the cabinet’s mistakes is so obvious. She is greatly responsible, and there is a literal and figurative “spotlight” shining on her, but she does not take any responsibility for her mistakes. In this second pan across the faces of the cabinet members, Rumsfeld and Tenet are now eating large pieces of the pie. There is an interesting role reversal in this moment, as the powerful cabinet members all now appear to be similar in their actions. Throughout the scene, in fact, they had little significance as individuals and were included in the scene more to provide a foil to Kay and Bush.

[11] Essentially, the entire film has documented the Bush administration’s journey to the moment of catharsis and downfall depicted here. As this scene shows, rather than a complete bashing of the President, the film is more of a tragedy. Bush agonizingly realizes that his entire premise for starting the war in Iraq was bogus. After all the passionate, uplifting, and self-assured speeches he gave earlier, we see him ultimately disappointed and misled. He was so wrong in his convictions that we almost pity him, in the way we often pity Greek heroes whose hubris always led to their downfalls. Yet Bush’s advisors are portrayed in a harsher light. They are the real villains of the story, obviously selfish and irresponsible, and the true culprits behind Bush’s tragedy.