The most shocking thing about W. isnít that it portrays a sitting president as a charismatic simpleton with out of control daddy issues, itís that the filmís director Oliver Stone actually seems to like George W. Bush. Iím not saying he thinks heís a good President or that he agrees with well, just about anything Bush has done during his term in office. But itís impossible to watch W. and not come to the conclusion that at the least, this is a man that Stone sympathizes with. The Dubya (as heís frequently called by his friends) of Stoneís film is a confused, often well-meaning man in over his head, out of his depth, and completely unaware of his own limitations.
Stoneís approach to Dubya as a lovable shlub is brilliant, enabling him to dodge many of the pitfalls a project like this is fraught with. Even though the movieís marketing materials seem intent on reducing Bush to a crass running gag, the film itself is never mocking or mean spirited. Bush may be something of a boob, but heís a lovable boob, perhaps even a harmless one, or would have been a harmless had we the people not been stupid enough to give him the reigns of power. Stone tells his story by mixing fact with wild conjecture. We see re-enacted events which were on the record and thus accurate, as well as a number of things which Stone invents wholesale as a way of getting across his take on the character. Interestingly, itís in those wholly fabricated scenes that Stone shows the most affection for George. His public persona is often his harshest, in the privacy of his own bedroom Bush comes off as a kind and frequently bewildered man.
Oliver Stoneís approach to the material is the right one, unfortunately his film is a structural disaster. He knows in general how he wants to portray the president, but beyond that Stone has no real theme or goal. He leaps through time, telling different parts of Bushís story at different places, with nothing of any substance connecting it all together. Many of the biggest moments in the movie serve no purpose, except as a way to let the audience revisit Bushís greatest hits. For instance, early in the movie Stone hops through time to show us Georgeís famous pretzel choking incident. We leave an unrelated scene to watch him gag and fall on the floor, and then weíre jumping to something else, with no further mention of Dubyaís near death experience. Itís as if Stone was in a rush when he wrote it, as if he had a list of things he wanted to cover but didnít have a clear idea of what he was trying to say with any of them, other than ďhey, hereís Bush!Ē
As a character study though, W. is fascinating. Josh Brolin turns in an incredible performance as Dubya, his Bush is spot on. What he does is something more than mimicry, you can see it in his eyes, heís there searching for Georgeís soul. Heís a dead ringer for the most powerful man in the world, and Brolin is inside his head. The movieís other performances come in varying flavors of success. James Cromwell is stately and understated as Dubyaís father George H.W. Bush and Thandie Newton slips so fully into the shrill persona of Condoleezza Rice that sheís completely unrecognizable as herself. Elizabeth Banks on the other hand, is left stranded by Laura Bush, who was written into Stanley Weisnerís script without a personality. Itís a shame too, since her story is, aside from Dubyaís, one of the most baffling. When they meet at a backyard barbecue sheís a spunky teacher devoted to reading, education, and voting Democrat. For a moment, Banks shows fire as she flirts with Bush and teases him about his politics. But thatís the last glimmer of personality we get from her, and we never truly understand how a woman like that ends up married to a right-wing conservative and borderline illiterate. Apparently Stoneís answer is that Laura shuts her mouth and simply does whatever her husband says.
W. ends long before the modern era, with the Iraq war just starting to go sour in the first half of Dubyaís second term. An intense desire to please his father coupled with family connections, slick campaign managers, and an innate ability to connect with people on some primal, beer-drinking buddy level have pushed Bushie into a position he has absolutely no desire to be in, and once heís there he convinces himself heís on a mission from God and starts going with his gut. In the process, heís manipulated by those around him. Cheney ambushes him at lunches, pushing his agenda and Bush, who doesnít like reading his paperwork, goes along with it. While his advisors talk about complicated issues like empire building and oil, he distills everything into pre-school like concepts and regurgitates them back as ďhey letís go spread freedom.Ē The Bush of W. is not an evil man, merely a somewhat foolish and fatally naive one, a man who belongs running a baseball team and not sitting in Americaís highest office munching on pretzels. Stoneís take on Bushís character is ultimately flawed, but fascinating. W. is neither as shocking or vilifying as you may be expecting, but it is entertaining.
Reviewed By: Josh Tyler
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