It's been about 24 hours since I saw Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic W., and I still can't make up my mind what I think about it. I guess it will be another entry in Stone's "interesting but not quite there" column, which is pretty overloaded these days and has really tipped the scales for the director. All in all, W. is marred by an uneven tone, neither full-on satire nor full-on political drama, and the technique left me scratching my head more than it had me either jeering or applauding.
Right now the film is famous for being the only biography film made of a sitting U.S. President, and for Stone's rushing to make sure it was in theatres in time for the election. It's also getting lots of notice for the performances, specifically Josh Brolin, whose uncanny portrayal of George W. Bush goes beyond mere impersonation to something more akin to demonic possession. He plays the Prez at every age from college all the way up to the recent past, and he gets the smirk, the squint, the laugh, the nerdy swagger. It's just too bad that there were no scenes with Bush Jr. and Ronald Reagan, because Josh's daddy James could have reprised the role of the elder statesman that he played in the 2003 Reagans movie.
The casting is actually the most winning element of the movie, with Elizabeth Banks distinguishing herself in an understated performance as Laura Bush and James Cromwell bringing some humanity to George H.W. Bush, who surprisingly comes off as the voice of reason in all the Iraq madness. Big points also to Thandie Newton, who disappears behind a pile of make-up to play Condoleeza Rice as a simpering lapdog, hinting at the kind of over-the-top lampoon W. could have been.
On the other side, the closed-door meetings leading up to the war in Iraq provide some of the more compelling moments, with a troubled Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) struggling mightily against the unturnable tide. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, who also wrote Wall Street and Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story, piece together fact and fiction to imagine what could have happened, sprinkling in famous soundbites and gaffs that have seared the blundering of the Bush administration into the public consciousness. (W.'s official site provides a guide for how things were put together and sources used.) The President is portrayed as the eternal screw-up who got his life on track when he became a true believer, and who ultimately let his ego and his single-mindedness lead him into a situation he could not handle. Stone doesn't seem to know if he was a patsy who got taken to the cleaners by his ambitious cabinet or a righteous dummy who didn't ask enough questions. I think he'd like us to think it was a little of both.
Stone commits several blunders, though, not the least of which is the cornball score by Paul Cantelon that I think has earned the flick some of its comparisons to TV movies. The bigger problems are multiple scenes that seem like non-sequiturs amidst the already disjointed editing and a hammy dream sequence that serves as the fulcrum to tip us into W.'s climax.
My immediate reaction to the movie was that I wished it hadn't been so cartoony, but then when I considered it in terms of Stone's other Presidential pictures, JFK and Nixon, both of which are played as serious and near-operatic, I started to wonder if that wasn't the point. Stone was treating George Bush with the respect he deserves. We see the President eating lunch in the White House with Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), and with the entire nation's resources at his fingertips, Bush is dining on a limp ham sandwich and Cheetos. In fact, he's stuffing his mouth in just about every scene, his eating habits revealing that, no matter how well they groom him, he's still a boor undeserving of serious consideration. He may be a calculating schemer with no moral compunctions when he's going for the win, a kind of Jay Gatsby for the sports set, but he's still an uncouth, petty daddy's boy deep down.
Oliver Stone has said that he started to identify with George W. Bush, and I fear that part of the connection was that Stone also seems like a pretender to the throne at times, his drive and ambition often outstripping his skills. That seems to be the case here, with W. lacking the intellectual incisiveness required for mission accomplished.
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All text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich