Director : Oliver Stone
Screenplay : Stanley Weiser
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), James Cromwell (George H. W. Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), Stacy Keach (Earle Hudd), Bruce McGill (George Tenet), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice) and Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell)
An early teaser poster for Oliver’s Stone’s W., a rushed-to-the-theaters portrait of the 43rd President, asked us to “get ready,” implying that the film was going to be made of contentious, polarizing stuff. Naturally, the mere idea of making a film about George W. Bush while he was still in office and getting it into theaters mere weeks before the next Presidential election (arguably one of the most important in decades) seemed compelling, provocative, and dangerous when it was first reported, but the resulting film is anything but, leaving us to wonder what it was we were supposed to be getting ready for. As it turns out, W. is utterly irrelevant, which may be the worst thing one could say about a film depicting historical events so recent that we’re still in their midst. It’s more than just lacking historical distance; W. is so hobbled by both its in-the-minute subject matter and its slapdash tonal range that strikes everywhere from high-minded tragedy to snarky black comedy that, even if Stone had a coherent message to convey, it would be lost.
As he did with World Trade Center (2006), his other stab at cinematically rendering history in the Dubya era, Stone tamps down his more radical aesthetic proclivities, which in this case might have been a suitable approach for the arguably surreal nature of the last eight years. Rather, he goes for a straightforward bio-pic approach that hops back and forth between Bush’s past and present, thus emphasizing how his formative experiences--primarily his tense and sometimes combative relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell)--drove him to transcend a meandering life of failed businesses and too much partying by not only reaching the highest office in the country, but “fixing” his father’s mistake by finishing off Saddam Hussein, necessity be damned. And, while this textbook psychoanalytic Oedipal drama works on paper, it is not enough to hinge a film that is almost embarrassingly conventional, which makes the aforementioned tonal shifts seem more awkward than engaging.
After a silly (and, unfortunately, recurring) dream sequence/visual metaphor involving Bush in an empty baseball stadium, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also penned Stone’s Wall Street) begin the film in the Oval Office with Bush and his staff working out the details of his upcoming State of the Union address, the main sticking point being whether or not he should use the term “Axis of Evil” to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. This allows the film to establish all of the main characters and the often tense relationships among them, including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill), Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), advisor/svengali Karl Rove (Toby Jones), and Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss).
The problem, of course, is that, like Bush, all of these people are still very much in the national limelight, and seeing them portrayed by well-known actors is inherently distracting. Our intense familiarity with their mannerisms and speech inevitably reduces the performances to mimicry, even when they’re good. In particular, Wright does a fine job channeling Powell’s intensity and increasing frustrating while Dreyfuss captures Cheney’s gruff, nearly maniacal ego. Thandie Newton, on the other hand, is simply grating in the way she plays Condi Rice as a nattering yes-woman, hovering around Bush and dialing the phone for him like a scared schoolgirl. Which naturally brings us to the trickiest performance of all, Brolin’s channeling of George W., which in the details is quite striking but in the overall effect is a failure. Having seen and heard everyone from Will Ferrell to Jon Stewart doing Bush impressions, Brolin’s adept impersonation of the President’s mannerisms and speech patterns leaves his performance hamstrung. With very few exceptions, it’s impossible to take him seriously.
Which brings us to the fundamental question of what, exactly, Stone is trying to accomplish here. The brazen nature of making the film to begin with demands attention, especially from the auteur-provocateur behind JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994), but any coherent insight into Bush’s life and times remains at a frustratingly shallow level. In every area where it should be grand, bold, and demanding of a response, W. feels scaled back and hesitant, substituting simplicity for the kind of complex narrative and thematic gymnastics that typify Stone’s most enduring films. It elicits little more than a shrug of your shoulders.
Everything W. has to tell us about one of the most polarizing political figures in decades can be found in Newsweek and has been better elucidated in a spate of recent biographies. There is no critical mass of information to weave together ala JFK or Shakespearean pretensions ala Nixon (1995). Instead, we have a film that is little more than a political pageant, a kind of moving wax museum that takes us through Bush’s highlights and lowlights (Boozing it up at Yale! Fighting with his father! Finding religion and sobering up! Continuing to fight with his father!) and then leads us back out into the sunlight with no more understanding than we had when we went into theater. Neither fully condemning nor terribly sympathetic, W. lacks a consistent point of view, giving us a feeble portrait of Bush that lacks the narrative grandeur it deserves.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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