Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Josh Brolin as George W. Bush
Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush
Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush
James Cromwell as George Herbert Walker Bush
Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney
Toby Jones as Karl Rove
Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice
Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell
Rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.
My turbulent relationship with Oliver Stone made me highly apprehensive in the days and weeks that approached before "W." was released. I simply never saw Oliver Stone the way his fans did-as this revolutionary and great film maker. I baffled my way through "Platoon," someone made it through "Alexander," and cringed during moments of "World Trade Center." On the other hand, I found myself enthralled by "JFK," which is often declared his best film anyway. And then there was "W.", which could have played as the most controversial film in his entire cannon of work. It could have been an easy route to go down-after all, President Bush is probably the easiest target for people, aside from the budding jokes that come from the whole Sarah Palin campaign. But I have to applaud Stone for somehow managing to navigate his original intention in making the film: to be as subjective as possible, and to set the facts down on the table for the viewer to decide.
I will admit I was surprised by some of the things I learned from watching the time. The first time we see Bush, aside from an opening scene of him and his cabinet members trying to settle on a decision to go to war, its at a fraternity, where he is being dosed with beer and whiskey during his pledge week. He quickly amazes the Brothers by managing to name all of them in succession, and from this point on we watch his younger years, as he goes through bottle after bottle, and woman after woman. This is all under the eyes of his disapproving father, George H. W. Bush, who is constantly comparing the rowdy George to the more mild mannered and ambitious Jeb. This transitions into a constant goal of George to have some kind of approval in his fathers eye, and after marrying Laura he finds himself back in Washington helping his dad with the presidential campaign. AA meetings help George get in touch with religion, and this leads to him deciding to run for presidency, the decision that may have destroyed the Bush legecy that took generations and generations to build.
The best scenes in the film come from the cabinet, which are at times both fascinating and scary to watch. It is an assembly of some very good actors. However there is a fine line between the ones that are simply doing an impression, and those that are actually making the character their own. To start with the bad, I will point out that Thandie Newton focuses more on changing her voice and appearance than actually doing something with Condoleezza Rice. Her odd facial distortions and vocals are embarassingly awkward, and she was possibly the weakest link out of every performer here. Thankfully the screenplay limits her lines and impact in the film, but scenes could have been cut because of how awful she is. The two, aside from Brolin but we'll get to him later, that really get meat out of their characters are Richard Dreyfuss, as Dick Cheney, and Toby Jones, as Karl Rove. Dreyfuss is terrific as Cheney, emboiding not only the look and personality of the Vice, but also the entire aura. As Cheney plots his reasoning for invading Iran on a large board in the middle of the conference room, I had visions of the General plotting his course of action in "Dr. Strangelove." And Toby Jones, a character actor who pops in and out of movies all the time, is a pleasure to watch as Rove. I don't know much about Karl Rove, but Jones is just such an enjoyable actor to watch that I just must give him credit. James Cromwell also gets to play with some depth as H.W. Bush, but people like Ellen Burstyn as Barbara coast their way through, though she could be excused because of limited screenplay time.
And then we get to the man himself: George W. I'll admit, when I first read that Josh Brolin was going to be playing the President, I was a bit apprenhensive. I couldn't see the same rugged and dishelved Brolin from "No Country for Old Men" playing the President. But Brolin catches me by surprise, and I found this to be one of the best performances of the year, and certainly one I would consider an Oscar nomination for. Brolin captures the speech patterns and mannierisms of the President, and aside from several differences in what they look like, the Presidential speech scenes share an uncanny resemblence. But it goes beyond a simple impression, which could have been easy to do. I was fascinated every time Brolin was on the screen, and he helped me gain a more sympathic view of Bush, despite all the trouble he's caused in the last eight years.
I am not an overly political person, but it doesn't take a moron to see how Bush screwed things up in the world during his two terms in office. While Stone clearly feels that Bush was never fit to be president, he shows an alternative side of things. He does not lay blame at Bush himself, but a collection of things that grew up into this large conflict. The first is the relationship between George and his father, as he constantly tries to meet his approval. Bush did what he did to try and have some kind of respect from him, according to the movie. The Florida Recount is never touched upon, nor is the controversial rumor that Jeb Bush had something to do with Bush getting in the White House the second time around. However, based on a scene where its revealed that H.W. helped get Bush into Stanford, I wouldn't have put it past Stone to make the Bush name influence his White House tenure as well.
The second thing is the entire cabinet-another collection of washed up egos and plans gone awry. Bush has to remind Cheney several times during the course of the movie that he is not the President. And as they realize how they messed up-when they realize that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq-we pan across the entire table, and its clear that they all had a hand in the problem. Stone tries to show the massive job it really is to be the President, and how it is never easy as someone will constantly disagree. And I must say I felt bad for Bush when he realized the gravity of what he did-and how much the invasion cost him. And its a combination of both Brolin and Stone that allowed me to feel this sympathy.
But, as with all political films, people will have their reservations at a recommendation. But I must say, I was surprised at how Stone ended up showing Bush. The advertisements will promote the film in a comedic light, but thats to get the liberal audiences in their seats to await a two hour Bush-bash. At times Stone does slip in a little joke at the President's expense-when Cheney gives the President a form to read Bush quickly glosses over it and is happy that its only three pages-but nothing is perfect. I saw this film nearly four days ago at this point, and realizing just how much I enjoyed it. To put politics aside, its a well made film-mostly well acted, Stone has a few neat directing touches never settling on a convential shot. I liked in the scenes with Cromwell and Brolin, Brolin always seems so small comapred to his father. And "W." ends up being a success from a thematic standpoint. And as a political piece-well, I've said what I feel. You'll have to decide for yourself. As with Bill Maher's "Religulous," its a touchy topic that everyone will have their opinion on. The best you can do is to make up your own mind.