W. (2008) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language, sexual references, alcohol abuse, smoking and disturbing war images
Running time: 131 min
Cast: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Toby Jones, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Burstyn, Scott Glenn, Thandie Newton, Bruce McGill, Ioan Gruffudd, Dennis Boutsikaris, Michael Gaston, Jesse Bradford, Rob Corddry, Marley Shelton, Jason Ritter, Noah Wyle
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Stanley Weiser
Review published October 18, 2008
A politics hawk like myself will find the premise of W. fascinating above and beyond the merit of its filmmaking value. Oliver Stone (World Trade Center, U-Turn) has been an uneven director throughout his career, and if there is one thing that W. suffers from most, it's that it is too scattershot to really come away from it thinking it was a fully realized and polished product by the controversial filmmaker. It's a collection of scenes, many drawing from actual inferences, many more from pure conjecture, that shows the 42nd President of the United States (played by Josh Brolin, American Gangster) trying his best to follow in his father's (Cromwell, Spider-Man 3) footsteps and live up to the promise of the Bush legacy, but world situations prove to be too complex for this very black-and-white thinker to process fully, while the members of his cabinet seem to operate without adequate knowledge to support him, or from pre-existing agendas on how the United States can increase its wealth and power in the world before things really begin to crumble.
That all sounds interesting, right? Unfortunately, as riveting as W. can sometimes be, it remains a disjointed affair, feeling more like a first work print for a film that Stone hasn't quite fully realized. One would gather from the finished product that he had several scenes in mind that would make for a great biographical film, but just lacked the one thing that would be able to tie it all together -- a central theme. That's not to say it's without any themes at all, as predominant ones include W.'s strained relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush, but that doesn't seem to be enough to tie up all of the multitudinous of loose ends together.
Stone is revisiting material somewhat in that this is the second film featuring a flawed presidency that shows the man in the White House operates out of a weakness spawned from his upbringing. Unlike his Nixon, which surmised that Richard Nixon's paranoia, guilt and drive for success stemmed from his strictly religious and financially struggling upbringing, W. takes the opposite approach. George W. Bush had been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but that also carried high expectations of him -- expectations he seemed to not be able to live up to time and again. His drive to please his father saw him attend Yale and Harvard (with Poppy's help), get into the oil business and professional baseball ownership, but in all capacities, though it might look good on the resume, he always managed to underperform in the capacity. Someone else always managed to carry him to the finish line when he actually did find any form of success.
What's most remarkable about W. is that Stone manages, despite some material that won't sit well with the right-wing side of the political spectrum, to make it all very plausible, given that which we know about Bush. Nixon tended to overreach by large measure, depicting some characters as either evil or corrupt through and through. One might say that, despite Stone's obvious left-wing approach, he grew to feel a sort of empathy for the man who was just in way over his head in the role of leader of the free world. Quite a few politicos in the public arena have voiced their opinion that George W. Bush is the worst president the United States has ever had, and while Stone doesn't seem to think much of Bush's policies or his effectiveness as a leader, or even a political thinker, he does go to great lengths to paint him as a regular guy, and not particularly evil himself, though his policies have been said to be more harmful than good.
Bush is shown as talking with his mouth full on more than one occasion, which is some sort of irony, given that his upbringing in a wealthy and quite public family would have certainly necessitated some manner of instruction on basic table manners. We even see him doing that which we almost never see in films about world leaders -- pooping. As one famous children's book title asserts, "Everyone Poops," and perhaps there's no better way to show that Bush is just like everybody else.
There is a sense of Bush that he doesn't hate anyone in particular, and those he likes and respects are kept in his inner circle in all matters. Bush has often been criticized for cronyism, elevating his friends to high positions they lack the proper qualifications for, sometimes, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina (which isn't even alluded to in Stone's film), to disastrous results. However, Stone's take on this is that Bush has always been a trusting person, as those around him were always willing to help him every step of the way. Those he likes, he keeps close to his chest, and he is never shown to have any outward dislike for anyone, even his enemies. Again, this is in stark contrast to Nixon, who seemed to distrust everyone (including his wife Pat), and carried out personal vendettas to anyone that threatened to diminish his power.
Though often amusing, it's not quite right to call W. a satire, as most scenes tend to play things straight. It's also not, like Nixon and JFK, set up to be a tragedy -- more like a comedy of errors with tragic results. There have been many comedies that have a simpleton somehow become a leader of a country or a big business, completely turning the place upside down, but without fail, always successful. W. could be said to be one of those comedies, if not for the fact that the "simpleton" fails, and continues to fail until the very end. Though there is humor within the film, there's no humor in the consequences of having someone, as good a person as he may be to friends and family, not able to understand how to be our leader, and who has let those with less honorable interests, the Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys of the world, have too much power and influence in dictating public policy.
W.'s strengths, other than the fact that its subject matter is relevant and interesting to today's political-minded moviegoer, comes from some very strong performances, particularly in Josh Brolin's very convincing George W. Bush. He's so good, and consistent, you practically forget it's Josh Brolin after the first scene -- it just may be his best work. Ellen Burstyn (The Fountain, The Wicker Man) is also very good as mother Barbara, Dreyfuss (Poseidon, Who is Cletis Tout?) convincing as Dick Cheney, and Elizabeth Banks (Definitely Maybe, Fred Claus), though never quite looking old enough for Laura Bush throughout most of the film, does give her the outer and inner beauty that Stone obviously feels should be there, given her many humanitarian works. Not everyone comes so well, though it is not the fault of the actors. One terrible portrayal is that by Thandie Newton (Run Fatboy Run, Norbit), who is a pretty appealing actress in most other roles, as Condoleezza Rice. Her squeaky voice and weird mannerisms make her come off more like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy than that of the Secretary of State we all know. Toby Jones (The Painted Veil, Mrs. Henderson Presents) as Karl Rove and Jeffrey Wright (The Invasion, Casino Royale) as Colin Powell also look much smaller than their real-life counterparts, and more mannered, seeming like they would be more at home in an "SNL" skit than in a serious film about these public figures. James Cromwell, who neither closely looks nor sounds like George H.W. "Poppy" Bush, is much more successful for not even trying to do an imitation.
Despite some sketchy impressions, W. still had the tools and talent to be a good, perhaps even great film, but it has been hastily slapped together, presumably to be released prior to the election of his successor. Many elements of the Bush presidency, from his questionable winning of his first term, environmental policies (or anti-environmental, to some), and many other terrorism/Iraq War issues are left out of the story altogether, as it bounces back and forth between his youthful partying and his rise to power in Texas. Even the 9/11 attack that defined much of his early first term is merely an occasional allusion, only coming into play as Bush and his associates attempt to coin a term to get the American people on their side to increase U.S. presence in the Middle East -- the "Axis of Evil." Perhaps due to budgetary concerns (the budget for the film is a paltry $30 mil) or perhaps it just didn't feel relevant to Stone's idea of what he wanted to portray, there is a lot of ground not covered in W that makes it further incomplete. The most glaring omission is the film's ending, a repeat of an earlier one showing Bush as a baseball player making a fly ball out as a fielder in an empty ball park, now looking desperately for a ball in the night sky that he can't find. This is perhaps a metaphor for how Bush ultimately did not keep his eye on the ball that he once felt he had a bead on, and while it's an interesting analogy, as an ending, and due to the aforementioned lack of a central theme, it falls curiously flat.
Watching the film, one doesn't really learn much about President Bush than we didn't already know going in. He's shown as going with gut instincts over reasoned insight, often reckless, very insular, committed to his causes to the point of stubbornness, and seems to believe, with every fiber in his being, that what he's doing is the right thing, perhaps even God's will. His presidency has seen him go from the most popular president in history (post 9/11) to the least popular, but Bush, love him or hate him, emerges as someone willing to take a beating in the public -- a public he thinks will forgive him when the history books proclaim him as being right to establish more dominion in the oil-rich center of energy dominance, all the while doing very little to foster alternatives to secure our independence from it. Short-sightedness offers a very deluded sense of possible future is a recurring theme in all manner of fact and fiction, and the Iraq War is one such example of ensuring catastrophe by coming to the conclusion that it is inevitable. And yet, no lessons have been leaned, despite the world outcry, but those that know him remain fiercely loyal. As depicted through Stone's filtered eyes, George W. Bush is very much that great guy you want to share a beer with, and very much not the great man who should have aspired to be much more than that.
©2008 Vince Leo