Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Jams Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn
Running Time: 129 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
In a lot of ways I fit the profile of the type of moviegoer Oliver Stone is reaching out to with W. Someone who definitely agrees George W. Bush didn’t do a good job as President yet doesn't necessarily have a burning desire to see him dragged through the mud. He was bad at his job and that’s it. A lot of people are bad at their jobs, but unfortunately it just so happens his job description reads: “Leader of the Free World.”
It’s possible for someone to enter a situation with the best possible intentions, only to find themselves in way over their head. Recently, I was talking to someone about the upcoming election and mentioned that Bush must be counting down the days until he’s a free man so he can go home to Texas to get some rest. That didn’t go over so well. Just that I even implied Bush was trying to do his job to the best of his abilities was blasphemous. As if he’s been sitting in the Oval Office for 8 years thinking of ways to wreck our country.
People can say what they want about Bush (and likely have) but I never thought there was a phony bone in his body. This isn’t Nixon. He’s not a crook or a liar. Instead, this is someone who shoots straight and will go to whatever lengths necessary to carry out what he believes in, even if it’s wrong. But in his mind he’s never wrong, especially when surrounded by people whose primary job it is to agree with everything he says. W. may be a fair portrayal of the man but despite what you’ve heard it isn’t necessarily a sympathetic one. That it’s actually been considered such should tell you all you need to know about how poorly the public perceives him. But it is just about as flattering a portrait as he could have possibly received and you could argue he’s just lucky to have a film based on his life with this much depth at all.
Stone paints him as an underachiever, full of self-doubt and burdened by expectations. In doing that he sets the stage for the film’s most frightening realization: He’s just like us. And whether we want to admit it or not, there’s no guarantee we could have done a better job in the White House under the circumstances. But more importantly, in being the first biopic centered around a current sitting President’s legacy, we’re robbed of time, distance and historical context in examining the film, making for some fascinating results. Not having that context may affect how we view the film right now, but strangely it doesn’t seem to have any impact on how Stone made it. Is it too soon? Probably, but that doesn’t make it any less memorable.
Stone presents Bush (Josh Brolin) as living a life defined by a failure to earn his father George Senior’s (James Cromwell’s) love and respect, something that was always exclusively reserved for his younger brother Jeb. The film follows a non-linear structure, flashing back to Bush’s younger days at Yale as a drunk womanizer who couldn’t hold a job and occasionally had to be bailed out of jail. He meets his future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), runs for Governor of Texas and helps dad with his 1988 Presidential campaign. There’s little shown of Bush’s days as owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, though that’s more than made up for with a very inventive framing device. He never really got his act together until the age of 40 when he quit drinking and found God. That faith would beckon him to seek the country’s highest office and guide much of his future decision-making. The flashbacks are interspersed with scenes of the Bush Presidency post-9/11. This is the portion that will have everyone talking.
Of course the real thrill here is seeing a diverse and talented group of actors flesh out current political figures whose personalities have just only been touched upon in the media. Each of them plays a pivotal role in Bush’s life and career and, as expected, some performances work better than others. Toby Jones’ Karl Rove is a coach to Bush with Stone insinuating that as clueless as Bush is with Rove's guidance he’d be even more clueless without it. Jones’ take on the character is interesting as he plays him as a know-it-all creepily lurking in the shadows waiting to impress everyone with his answers.
Richard Dreyfuss wisely doesn’t go for a full-on impersonation of Dick Cheney and instead inhabits him. But if we were giving points for how well he gets the mannerisms down he’d score high marks there also. It’s scary, but not as scary as Thandie Newton’s transformation into Condoleezza Rice, which is either brilliant or terrible depending on your perspective.You could argue all day and night whether Newton’s dead-on mimicry is even appropriate for this kind of film but there’s no denying she nailed it to the point where the real Condi wouldn't be able to tell the difference. She’s basically portrayed as a suck-up to the President.
Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell is the sole “the voice of reason” clashing often and memorably with Dreyfuss’ Cheney, particularly in one electrifying “War Room” scene. Bruce McGill, Rob Corrdry, and Noah Wyle have much smaller roles as George Tenet, Ari Fleischer and Don Evans respectively, popping in and out when the picture requires. What’s interesting is that the film presents those working for Bush as being just as underwhelming as he is, if not moreso (that’s particularly true of Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld). With all the clashing personalities, egos and agendas, Bush never really stood a chance.
The worst thing that could have happened to the younger Bush was his father being elected President because that set the bar even higher for him. He carried that resentment all the way to The White House and Stone surmises that he went into Iraq at least partially to prove that he could finish the job his father couldn’t. Cromwell’s performance is miraculous in that he never attempts to capture George Senior’s mannerisms or any of his physical characteristics, but instead focuses his efforts on conveying the elder President’s deep disappointment as honest and reasonably as possible.
We see how the elder Bush would feel let down by his screw-up son, but at the same time we see that he unintentionally helped cause the whole mess. His inability to communicate with him on the most basic level plagued them both, right up to and throughout his term in office. When the going got too tough in his son’s administration he couldn’t even bring himself to offer any advice, much to his wife Barbara’s (Ellen Burstyn) dismay. Ironically, W. always had something his dad lacked. Not ambition, but a fire in his belly and an obsessive desire to prove everyone wrong. It ended up taking him further than anyone expected, but also helped destroy him.
What shocked me most and I didn’t expect going in was how in control of the material Stone was. I expected the tone to be all over the map and if you’ve seen any of the trailers and commercials you wouldn’t be wrong to expect the film to be a political satire. While it definitely has its subtle moments of humor, Stone plays it remarkably straight. That these were the people making decisions of that magnitude and that’s what they said while making them is scary not funny. Cheney embodies it as Dreyfuss is given the best line of the film, laying out the timetable for when U.S. troops should get out of Iraq. What he says will send chills down your spine. There’s a scene of Bush choking on a pretzel at Camp David that on paper should be hilarious, but Stone makes terrifying. No giggles. You could hear a pin drop. It’ll be a while before you can eat pretzels again.
Last year I may have had some issues with the overpraised No Country For Old Men, but Josh Brolin definitely wasn't one of them. Here he delivers a career high performance that starts as great imitation but evolves into much more as the film slowly evolves with it. The more notes he’s asked to hit the more he starts to resemble Bush in both appearance and in spirit, to the point where midway through you realize it’s a full immersion. His work never comes off as parody, a huge feat considering the subject he was asked to portray.
I didn’t think the present-day scenes worked as well as the flashbacks to his early life mainly because they’re almost too uncomfortably “of the moment,” but I could be bias since I enjoyed watching the dynamics of Bush’s younger days so much. The last hour drags its feet a little bit and spins its wheels in hammering home the message that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Dumb mistakes were made. That goes without saying. Like most of Stone’s film’s, its also messy but not to the point where I feel we were seriously shortchanged on anything so he could rush it into release before the election.
With all the jumping back and forth we're missing a full-fledged emotional connection with the man, although that’s almost fitting. Nor do we really form a full one with Laura, just about the only aspect to Bush everyone agrees they like. In just a few early scenes Banks shows us why, encapsulating everything we suspected she was. What she saw in him we'll never know. The term “Better Half” couldn't be more applicable. It’s a bit of a let down she doesn’t play a bigger role, but inevitable she’d have to take a backseat given the direction of the story. This isn’t Walk The Line.
W. is a return to form of sorts for Oliver Stone who took the easy way out with 2006’s World Trade Center. It wasn’t a bad film, but played with the resonance of a Hallmark greeting card next to something as powerful as Paul Greengrass' United 93, which was released the same year. There are elements in this that characterize Stone's best work like JFK and Nixon where he’s focusing on doing what he does best: pushing our buttons. This film isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about George W. Bush and I don’t think Stone intended it to. Whether you like the man or not you can't deny it's far better to attempt to understand him than angrily make ridiculous films like Rendition, Redacted, Lions For Lambs, In The Valley of Ellah, Stop-Loss or whatever other political garbage Hollywood feels like feeding us this week. That doesn’t accomplish anything. This does.
In the long run I don’t think it matters whether this was released now or 10 years from now because this almost feels like it was made in the future and time will likely treat it well. Those who went in expecting a train wreck won’t exactly be disappointed and neither will those who expected a serious examination of Bush’s psyche. On one level it’s a standard biopic, yet on another it isn’t at all. Everyone wins. But more importantly it gets us to feel something for him. I’m not sure if it can be categorized as pity, sympathy, understanding or even any of those but it at least it’s something other than hatred.
History will judge the 43rd President, not Stone. It would be nice to think that Bush now has time to contemplate the mistakes he’s made but if there’s only one thing to take out of this film it’s that he doesn’t think he made any. In his mind he did what he felt was right for the country, acting with unwavering, stubborn consistency the entire time. Whether we needed W. to be released right now is debatable but what isn’t is that you’ll have plenty to think about when it’s over.