Rating: 2.5 stars
The trailers and poster art for Oliver Stone’s W. make it seem like a scathing work of satire but in reality, it’s a fairly standard biopic, with a healthy dose of Freudian speculation about the relationship between the elder Bush and his wayward son. Sure, there are some funny moments—a guy like Dubya would have to yield a few chuckles—but it’s mostly benign and dare I say . . . sympathetic? (This from the guy who gave us Natural Born Killers and JFK?)
Of course, the film is already controversial—and unprecedented. While there have been many presidential biopics—Stone has done one of his own (1995’s Nixon)—this is the first time one has been filmed while the president was still in office. In that sense, W. works best as a novelty film—and Stone seems to know it.
Why else, then, would he start the film with a “name that cabinet member” tableaux, as George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) and his advisers sit around the Oval Office coming up with the phrase Axis of Evil? You spend the first few minutes trying to figure out who’s who—it almost feels like a Saturday Night Live skit (alas, Tina Fey is nowhere to be found).
There’s Richard Dreyfuss, exuding sour superiority as Dick Cheney. Oh, there’s Toby Jones approximating Karl Rove’s ardent nerdiness. There’s—whoa, is that Thandie Newton?—doing a sort of wax museum version of Condoleezza Rice. (I confess it took me a while to figure out that Scott Glenn was playing Dick Rumsfeld—he just doesn’t look like him.)
These impersonations have different degrees of success. Jones, Dreyfuss, and Elizabeth Banks (as Laura Bush) nail it—but Newton and the usually great Jeffrey Wright (as Colin Powell) seem restricted in their parts. Likewise, Ellen Burstyn simply doesn’t have the monumental bearing of Barbara Bush and, while James Cromwell certainly feels stern and patrician, he never believably evokes Daddy Bush.
Of course, the whole film would go bust if Josh Brolin wasn't a believable George W. And he’s nearly perfect. In the White House scenes, he brilliantly captures Bush’s bemused expression, his thinly concealed mirth, his schoolboy-stomping-his-feet-in-the-playground style of leadership. It’s uncanny. But as the younger George—first as a frat boy at Yale, later a n’er-do-well son who can never please his father—he doesn’t quite convince. He plays young Bush as kind of earnest and bummed out, which hardly tracks with my opinion of him. (If anything, I’d expect him to be more carefree, with a kind of permanent sh*t-eating grin.)
When W. ended, my (obviously liberal) screening audience clapped politely. They clearly wanted something more—more insight, more laughs, more outrage, more of an opportunity for shared catharsis. My audience wanted a scream; Oliver Stone gave something slightly above a whisper.
(FYI: For a richer, more complex and far more insightful examination of the Bush family, check out Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant American Wife. Also, you can read my review of that book here.)