Film review by: Witney Seibold
A drunken fratboy from Texas managed to get into some Ivy-League schools with the aid of his rich, blueblood father. He spent most of his youth getting into trouble with the law. He couldn’t hold down a job, from a lowly oil rig worker to commissioner of a local baseball team. Dad was a politician, his younger brother was a politician, so he decided to become a politician too. He married an understanding lady, found Jesus, and managed to become elected to the presidency, where he could continue, and perhaps outdo, his father’s legacy.
I know. Farfetched story, right?
Many have said that Oliver Stone’s biopic of president George W. Bush, a figure he likely loathes, was a missed opportunity. We have, for the past eight years in this country, endured easily one of the worst presidential administrations in our history. It was riddled with scandal, several misplaced wars, bungling of several dramatic national disasters, and a slipping economy that has already been declared by some pundits as a new Great Depression. There’s a lot of dramatic material to choose from in the last eight years, but Stone chose to focus on the early years of Bush’s life, from his days in college to sometime in 2003 when the ill-fated war in Iraq began to explode in his face.
While an epic project of political importance (and perhaps one that made some sense of the last chaotic and idiotic eight years) could have been amazing to behold, especially in the hands of the notoriously unrestrained Stone, I think this simpler approach is somewhat ingenious in itself. Just like Tim Burton made Ed Wood’s life look like one of Wood’s own films, Stone opted to make Bush’s life as simplistic as Bush himself probably sees it. Bush, he argues, is something of an idiot who only won the presidency through careful grooming by Karl Rove, and the string-pulling power of his president father. He is not a grand and complex mind. He’s something of a simpleton. And how can you make a deep film about a simple man?
The film flashes from 2003, when he and his shady helpers are preparing to invade Iraq, and desperately trying to manufacture a reason for doing so, and to Bush’s upbringing. His upbringing could have been the life story of any overprivileged rich white kid, and, indeed, I think I saw it in fatuous teen fare like “Cruel Intentions.” Bush’s knack for giving his friends and associates nicknames comes from at old hazing ritual. His malapropisms and linguistic manglings have always haunted him. Stone can’t resist throwing in some of Bush’s Greatest Hits, like the “Fool me once…” bit.
The 2003 scenes show Bush (Josh Brolin), Cheney (Richard Reyfuss), Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condi (Thandie Newton), and Colin (Jeffrey Wright) gathered around a big table talking about the advantages and disadvantages of invading Iraq. In Bush’s mind, it’s clearly just to finish what his father started. In Cheney’s mind, it’s to control the world’s oil supply. In Rummy’s mind, it’s to be a mean bastard. In Condi’s mind, it’s… well, she doesn’t really have much of insight to say. Karl Rove (Toby Jones) is often there as well, to interject and offer moral support. These conversations plays out like a half-parody and half conjecture of what probably really happened. In Stone’s version of things, the war was cooked up just as falsely and just as insidiously as we all suspected.
And oversimplification? Perhaps, but, like I said, Bush himself can probably only understand things that have been oversimplified, and this whole story seems to be told from his point of view, and not ours. This is a film about Bush for Bush, but from the sneaky mind of a left-wing zealot.
The performances in “W.” are mostly all first-rate. Brolin is brilliantly chameleonic as the maligned president, and has now proved himself as a reckonable dramatic force. Dreyfuss chews scenery and has an utter ball as Cheney. And much credit must be given to James Cromwell who does not resemble George Bush, Sr. in any way, but manages to have the strong paternal presence of a doting and overwhelmed father. He will be nominated, come Oscar time. Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush, and she serves well. Wright, as Colin Powell serves as the film’s conscience. Newton, as Condoleezza Rice fares the worst, as she seems less to be acting, and more doing a comedian’s impersonation. Truly excellent, though, is the reliable Stacy Keach as Earle Hudd, the Fundamentalist preacher who turned Bush to Jesus. The scene in which Bush announces to Hudd that God told him to run for president (a strangely perfunctory scene) is a gorgeous bit of performing, as even Hudd seems scared by the prospect.
Ioan Gruffud appears as Tony Blair.
Many of Stone’s recent projects have shied away from the overlong student-film abstraction that made him famous (“JFK,” “Nixon,” “Natural Born Killers”), and have moved toward a kind of over-the-top melodrama that would feel more at home in the hands of Brian DePalma. Watch “Alexander” or “World Trade Center” if you have any doubts on that statement. “W.” is certainly of the latter-day Stone, but, despite the glories that it could have been, it still manages to be good at what it is. The final shot of the film sums it up pretty well.