Oliver Stone’s “W.” a winner
Like George W. Bush? You may be disappointed in “W.” Hate him? Ditto.
If extensive hype hasn’t given it away yet, Oliver Stone’s latest presidential film (following “JFK” and “Nixon”) isn’t giving in to any side of a pro/anti-Bush debate. “W” is not a smear piece, nor is it a soft-around-the-edges biography. Instead, it comes off more like historical theater, with the heavyweight director turning the country’s leaders into characters in a play. And it’s as objective a film as you’re likely to see outside of the History Channel.
The movie assumes the most basic understanding of contemporary politics, as we’re dropped right into the meeting where the seed for the second Iraq war is planted.
For the first half, Stone backpedals from 2003 to the events that got Bush to where his presidency reached critical mass. If Bush had stayed the same beer-swilling frat boy he’s pictured to be in 1966, he would have led an entirely different and less controversial life (he defiantly states politics isn’t for him during a fraternity hazing ritual).
With its ensemble cast, “W.” is like a wax museum that is a little too successful in its lifelike replicas.
Karl Rove (Toby Jones, “The Mist”) is a despicably shrewd weasel, Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn, “Buffalo Soldiers”) is cold and calculating, and Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”) gives a sneering Dick Cheney the demeanor of a ruthless wolf. Cheney smiles twice throughout “W.,” and each one comes with a self-congratulating licking of the chops.
Fittingly, the commander-in-chief is the most engaging. Josh Brolin’s (“No Country For Old Men”) Bush is faithful but not comically so, save for the uniquely Bush-esque vocabulary like “misunderestimated.” Bush’s hands move with his head, and he sees the world as a Texas Hold ’Em game through those squinty eyes.
The only unsuccessful portrayal is Thandie Newton’s (“Crash”) flat-out weird rendering of Condoleezza Rice, who, depicted here as merely a Bush lackey, is more plastic and overly polite than the Rice we know from television. The Rice character is too (unintentionally) funny to be taken seriously – it’s like watching C-3P0 from “Star Wars” working for Darth Vader.
Even when he takes a break for lunch, Bush’s ego is working overtime. In one scene, he chomps his sandwich like the head lion as he puts a war-hungry Cheney in his place. “I’m the decider,” he reminds his second-in-command, telling him to “keep a lid on it” while giving his opinion in meetings.
And the film indeed does come down to the man in charge, even as the second half threatens to veer off into a rote recounting of the Iraq invasion.
It’s neither the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks, “Definitely Maybe” as wife Laura) nor a tearful religious conversion that fuels the red-blooded Bush. The stubborn protagonist of “W.” is perpetually mauled by a lack of love from daddy Bush (James Cromwell, “Spider-Man 3”), from his policies to his dreams.
Another recurring theme is peer pressure, as dissenting veteran Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright, “Casino Royale”) and ally Tony Blair (Ioan Gruffudd, “Fantastic Four”) separately give in with much reluctance to the administration’s plan for military force.
When Bush isn’t analyzing strategies in the war room, he isn’t one to take things too seriously – even after growing up and receiving Jesus, he still chuckles with good-ol’-boy spirit and prefers nicknames to real names (“Rummy” for Rumsfeld, “Poppy” for his father).
He trusts his gut over his head any day (“I don’t like to think too much, messes me all up,” he says) and prefers to speak in generalities as opposed to the geopolitical specifics Cheney and Rumsfeld whip up.
Even while trying to give the story of our 43rd president a fair telling, Stone indulges in his penchant for surreal depictions of metaphors, like Bush playing to an empty baseball stadium where the applause is all in his head.
Let’s not even discuss the sometimes-dizzying camera work, which can make one’s stomach do back-flips.
And like the media he briefly criticizes, Stone may strive for a fair look, but there’s something implicitly negative about the events chosen for inclusion. Why do we see a middle-aged Dubya choking on a pretzel but not giving his inspirational post-9/11 speech?
There are no victories shown, except the long one against alcoholism (the marketing team at Jack Daniel’s must be absolutely peeing themselves with joy over the extensive product placement). Both presidential wins go unmentioned, and while he eventually secured a spot as a Texas governor, we only see him drink away his initial defeat.
All actors bar Newton get standing ovations, but it all can’t hide the big Republican elephant lurking in the room – Stone simply jumped on this biopic idea about 20 years too early. The events of the past won’t change, but one can’t help but feel this film was rushed to theaters to capitalize on the current fascination with our fearless leader. Can you look truthfully at a president’s life from only a few years away?
Here’s hoping Stone waits a few wars before a film about our next president.