Oliver Stone's W. is a very different kind of presidential bio-pic. Most of them are made long after the president in question has left office, and the filmmaker has the benefit of history and hindsight. This one is in theaters while its subject carries out his final months in office. Nobody has ever done this before, and W. subsequently has an immediacy that drew me in. The film comes straight from the gut. Far from being a hatchet job, Stone - perhaps the most overtly political director working today - wants to draw on all our knowledge regarding George W. Bush so that he can force us to look deeper into our own perceptions. In a manner of speaking, the movie is a strange kind of gift to Bush; it focuses on him as a sympathetic-but-flawed human being and not as the political demon he's often been made out to be by his critics.
Josh Brolin portrays Bush, and the movie weaves together a quilt made from different periods of his life. We see him as a young college student, trading on his family's name as he drinks and chases skirts with his frat brothers; as a young man rebelling against authority, including his father's; as a loving husband to Laura (Elizabeth Banks); as a spiritual convert who believes that God wants him to run for President; and, of course, as a leader who is faced with the need to somehow react to a heinous act of terrorism on American soil.
It's not what the film portrays that is so fascinating; it's how it portrays the man at the center of those events. In the eyes of Stone and screenwriter Stanley Wiser, George W. Bush is a complex figure - more complex than his detractors give him credit for. The man we see here is a rabble-rouser whose primary motivation in getting his act together is to win the approval of his father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell). Dubya tries to out-do favored son Jeb by running for governor of Texas, and later the White House. The movie speculates that, given his druthers, he'd be perfectly happy back in Texas, owning/managing a baseball team, if only that would be good enough for "Poppy." It's not, and so a grander plan must be formulated.
This desire for paternal approval gets him in over his head. Always a straight-shooter and something of a good ol' boy, Stone's Bush is not a bad guy. He is loyal and down to earth. He wants to do something remarkable for America and prove himself worthy of the Bush legacy. He is also not sophisticated enough to comprehend the fragility of world politics. This, in turn, causes him to be heavily influenced by the likes of partisan schemer Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and V.P. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), who wants to use might to ensure that the U.S. has an eternal stake in the world's oil fields. Deferring to their judgments while insisting on final approval of everything, Bush falls victim to "make him think it was his idea" syndrome. Late in the film, Bush answers questions at a press conference. When a reporter asks what mistakes he made in Iraq, he fumbles for an answer. In Stone's view, Bush really doesn't know. He gave his cabinet a command (fight terrorism), then adhered to their suggestions on how to carry it out. In his eyes, it should have worked. The reasons why it didn't are beyond his grasp.
Demonizing Bush would have been all too simple. Stone paints him as patriotic, if a bit too over-simplistic, and sincere in his beliefs, if a little misguided. Perhaps the most interesting scene in the film is a dream sequence in which George H.W. Bush threatens to kick his son's ass in the Oval Office. Bush becomes a figure of almost Shakespearean tragedy, whose thirst for Daddy's love gives him the kind of drive his father has always accused him of not possessing, then eventually dooms him. W. doesn't criticize Bush so much as it tries to understand him. Much has been made of our president's stubborn refusal to acknowledge his errors or change his course. This brings him in line for a lot of not-unjustified criticism; Stone attempts to look at what makes Bush the way he is, for better or worse.
If you've ever seen an Oliver Stone movie, you know that he rarely approaches things in a straightforward manner. W. mixes all kinds of styles together. It's sometimes dramatic and sometimes melodramatic, sometimes satirical and sometimes serious, sometimes factual and sometimes speculative. In other hands, you might get the sense that the filmmaker doesn't know what he's doing, but Stone certainly does. The implication in the film's style is that its subject is not easily classifiable. He can - and has been - viewed as everything from a clown, to a tyrant, to a genuine patriot. The truth is probably none of those things, and all of them.
Josh Brolin gives the performance of his career as Bush. This is a genuine portrayal, not a "Saturday Night Live" imitation. Brolin perfectly captures the speech patterns and physical mannerisms, but also the single-minded determination that characterizes Bush. Playing someone who is not only currently alive but in the news every day has got to be difficult; our recognition of everything about Dubya is at its peak. Brolin makes us forget that we are watching an actor. We buy into the concept that this is George W. Bush. The supporting actors are just as well cast, almost eerily so. I have not yet even mentioned Thandie Newton as Condie Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, or Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld. All are excellent.
The scenes where Bush and his cabinet member plan - and later recognize the faultiness of - the war on Iraq are electric. You can feel how groupthink took over, even in the face of hesitation from Colin Powell. The movie's Bush sees the invasion as his masterstroke - a way to do something so profound for America and the world that even his father would have to admire it. As the dream fizzles away, he's faced with the devastating realization that he's blown his legacy.
Of course, Oliver Stone's take on Bush could be spot-on, or it could just be armchair analysis. All I know is that I was heavily involved in his vision. This is great, ambitious filmmaking from a director who is not afraid to delve inside his subjects, whatever they may be. As he proved in Nixon, Stone is savvy enough to know that anyone who is either revered or vilified will have a head worth getting into. History will judge George W. Bush harshly for his mistakes, but certainly he didn't set out to make them. All presidents strive for greatness. Why Bush went from our nation's savior to a lame duck in just a few years can be explained in a variety of ways. Stone's is as captivating as any of them.
( out of four)
W. is rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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