A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #21

W. jjj

2008, PG-13, 131 mins.

G.W. Bush: Josh Brolin / Laura: Elizabeth Banks / Barbara: Ellen Burstyn / George Sr. James Cromwell / Dick Cheney: Richard Dreyfuss / Rumsfeld: Scott Glenn / Karl Rove: Toby Jones / Rev. Hudd: Stacy Keach / Powell: Jeffrey Wright / Rice: Thandie Newton

Directed by Oliver Stone / Written by Stanley Weiser

"I'm the master of low expectations."

- George W. Bush aboard Air Force One, June 4, 2003


I have always admired the fierce ambition of Oliver Stone.  His films very rarely, if ever, take the easiest routes with their subject matter and themes.  He takes characters and issues that most filmmakers would sanitize and sentimentalize to the point of ad nausea, not to mention that he tackles themes that most directors would never dare touch and are able to infuse in them something more substantial.  That’s the Stonian touch: He may not be successful every time, but at least he strives for something more with his cinematic curveballs.  He’s always pushing the dramatic envelope while pushing our buttons; as he once famously said, Films have to be subversive in order for them to be any good, because they force you to look for and ask hard questions that don’t have simple and easily defined answers.”

Stone, to his credit, has certainly never made a film that was not compelling, nor has he ever truly made an awful film (unless one can excuse the only major hiccup on his resume, the abortive U-TURN) and he has definitely made some of the greatest films of the last 20 years.  PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, JFK, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, NIXON (a uniformly under-appreciated masterpiece) are some of his noteworthy achievements.  Hell, even his lesser works, like 2004's critically maligned, but too decent to be considered garbage, ALEXANDER, was simply too potently epic and daringly ambitious to be unfairly chastised as a letdown. 

Now, this brings me to W. and in a lesser director's hands a biopic on the life and times of the current US Commander-in-Chief could have achieved the level of a scornful and ridiculing SNL parody stretched to a feature length film.  To be sure, Stone's portrait of George W. Bush – arguably one of the least popular of the modern presidents - is scornful and mocking, but part of that Stonian touch is to look deeper into the underlining material and bring out psychological complexities to Bush's persona.  Yes, his Bush is often - and rightfully - presented as a bumbling, monosyllabic simpleton that sometimes has difficulty stringing together a few syllables to form a complete and coherent sentence.  The easy approach, it could be said, would be to portray Bush in broad strokes as a moron (and, to some extent, he is shown just as that in W.), but in Stone's viewfinder he gives the Bush story more gravity and weight.

This approach is very similar to what Stone did with his brilliant biopic of a previous President, Richard Nixon (a persona in history that also made colossal mistakes and blunders while in the Oval Office and was rigidly scrutinized and demonized).  NIXON humanized its President by letting his story unpeel to the point where it hinted at and achieved a level of Greek tragedy.  The tragedy of George Walker Bush is that he had broad ambitions in life, but he simply did not have the smarts to carry his ambitious plans through to successful fruition.  The film is also one of deep and penetrating irony: Dubya was a man that strived to be his own man and break away from his father’s shadow, but he paradoxically let himself become the puppet to wiser political forces once he attained prominence in politics.  W. does not let him off the hook, but it’s not entirely without sympathy for the man either.

This is why W. is such an intoxicating biopic: It’s a fascinating portrayal of a man who is nearly made impotent by his sin of pride, which became a determining catalyst in all of his political and business endeavors.  Dubya's personal demons come in the form of a tenuous, thorny, and frequently troubled relationship with his patriarchic "pappi", George H. W. Bush, whom we all know as a man that rose to political power in the 80's as Vice President under Ronald Reagan and eventually became the last one-term President.  Living under his father's omnipotent shadow is a constant thorn in Junior's side, especially early on when his reputation as a drunkard and underachieving college reject did not instill confidence in his old man.   "Who do you think you are,” the elder Bush asks the young twenty-something Dubya at one crucial point, "A Kennedy?"

The script of the film was written pre-Writer’s Strike by Stanley Weiser, who had previously collaborated with Stone on 1987’s WALL STREET (one of that decade’s defining films, and one that still bares great relevance now, especially with our financially unstable times).  Stone and Weiser researched and read dozens of books on Bush’s life, but their intention was not to make a broad and sweeping narrative of his entire life.  Instead, W. has a non-linear structure that ostensibly focuses on the events leading up to the 2003 Iraqi invasion.  Most of the film is told in snippets and flashbacks, but the small scenes speak wonders to the whole at the fleshing out Bush.  We see his wild partying days at Yale as a 19-year-old, (played throughout the film by Josh Brolin, more on him later), his struggles with alcohol and the law, his early jobs on oil rigs, the courtship of his future wife, Laura Welch (well played by Elizabeth Banks), his baseball ownership days, his troublesome attempts at becoming Governor of Texas, his attempts in 1988 to help get elder Bush (James Cromwell) elected President, and, most importantly, his conversion to the Christian faith, which he believed gave him a calling to follow his father’s footsteps into the White House.  Throughout all of this Stone’s mission is to paint Bush Jr. as a man of stubborn conviction and deeply vented insecurities. 

The simplicity of the film's focus is what makes W. all the more intriguing.  Bush was never driven by his intelligence (clearly) in political matters, nor through a burning, life-long desire to serve in office.  At the heart of the film is Dubya's yearning to outcast his father's influence out of his life so he could emerge as a somebody.  Throughout his life, Bush Sr. is a cold, emotionally distant, and unapproachable presence to his son and his lack of showing any form of encouragement and compassion for his endeavors torments him. 

As a result of this approach, Stone remarkably neither vilifies Bush Jr. nor does he place him up on an alter of hero worship as a misunderstood public figure.  If anything, Bush comes off as a deeply flawed and troubled man whose own career ambitions exceeded his skills and attributes.  He never had a gift with words, nor was he competent with the press nor a quick-witted thinker on his feet.  He was always somewhat over his head, but he seems aware of this.  He's not a man that thinks he's smarter than he actually is; if anything, Stone shows Bush as a frequently ignorant and imbecilic - but moderately humble and affable minded - person who really believes that he doing what he feels his right for Americans.  He does garner some level of sympathy for the way he unwittingly allows himself to be used by the intellectually superior minds that occupy his cabinet.  His pride oftentimes clouds his sense of reason and common sense. 

Stone often uses recurring visual metaphors in the film - fantasy sequences of Bush inside a vast and empty baseball park as he hears the cheering and screaming voices of imaginary fans.  The purpose here is to show Bush as a man hindered by obsessive, self-absorbed heroic impulses.  He feels he's on a self-righteous mission from God to serve his country in office and desperately clamors for the public to stand behind him and appreciate his efforts.  In one of the final fantasy sequences a pop fly is hit to him deep in center field, but the ball never makes it to the ground for him to catch.  He seems befuddled and confused as to what has happened and what to do next.  The camera slowly dollies in on his eyes, pools into his perplexed state.  The way the film approaches minor tragedy is kind of sad, seeing as its portrait of Bush is that of a man that truly felt he had a calling to serve, but was perhaps a bit too small minded to see that the almighty did not give him the necessary tools to govern with.

Josh Brolin’s casting here just may be the cinematic coup of 2008 (Christian Bale was initially cast, but opted out after make-up tests proved unconvincing to him).  Brolin gives the performance of the fall in his portrayal of Bush Jr. - describing it as a one-note act of mimicry that any stand up comedian could do (which too many short-sided critics have suggested) is an injustice.  Much like Anthony Hopkins did as Nixon, Brolin inhabits Bush by flawlessly given us an impression of the man.  At first, Brolin would seem like the least likely actor to play Bush (he's dark and brooding leading man material), but he does a bravura job of encapsulating all of Bush’s awkward physicality and weird vocal inflections.  Yet, his job here is not for all out imitation; his work here is very tricky and utterly thankless for the way that he has to both be thoroughly convincing as Dubya while giving a subtly textured performance that gives us a multi-layered look at the 43rd US President.  Brolin is pure dynamite here and one of the many reasons to see W..

James Cromwell is also fantastic; he too looks and sounds nothing like his real life character, but he gives Bush Sr. a calm and authoritative aura of power, which is crucial to help epitomize him as a looming presence over his son.  There is a bold dream sequence that pits elder Bush versus Junior in an empty Oval Office at one point, where Bush Sr. stands to confront his son to have a throw down due to his resentment and disappointment in him.  It’s fiendishly funny, if not without a grain of mournful melancholy.  The sad aspect of Bush W. is that he's constantly a figure pining for the affection of an empowered father that always talks down to him and feels little, if any, confidence in him accomplishing anything in life.  Father Bush sees his other son, Jeb, as the next heir apparent politician in the Bush legacy, which serves as a wounding sticking point throughout W's life. 

Yet, Cromwell doesn’t portray the father as a stuck up, cruel, and vindictive presence.  He brings an air of a calm spoken and principled man that does care for his son (there is a touching moment when he gives W a highly sentimental gift upon his presidential inauguration), even when he feels that he's let his family down on many occasions.  He's not a monstrous paternal presence in the film: despite his place of prominence in American history, Cromwell's father acts like just about any other normal father would under the circumstances.

Other supporting performances are strong too, especially by Richard Dreyfus, who is so creepily effective as Vice President Cheney.  One key moment - where he reveals his grand scheme as to why America needs to Invade Iraq in 2003 - is quietly chilling.  He plays the Vice Pres with a subtle Emperor Palpatine-like control over the often hapless and ill-informed Bush.  The interesting angle here is that Bush frequently tells Cheney to keep a lid on it and stay quiet while in meetings, but the film shows that it's Cheney and others that delicately and smugly pull all of the strings.  Other power players over Bush in the film include an almost unrecognizable Thandie Newton playing Condie Rice, Toby Jones playing front man Karl Rove, and Scott Glen playing Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.  Only one figure in Bush’s intimate inner political circle comes off with any level of decency and compassion and that’s Colin Powell, played nicely by Jeffrey Wright, who many times through the film shares the audience’s stupefied reaction to the things spoken by Bush’s other disreputable policy makers.

As mush as Stone provides restraint and even handedness with his handling of the film's characters, he also reigns in the aesthetic style of the film, which serves to help hone in focus on the real essence of the film's themes.  As much as films like JFK, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and NIXON were editorial masterpieces, Stone keeps his stylistic flourishes in check here and goes for a less is more approach, which I think compliments W. as a character and story focused film.   Since Bush in the film is often shown as a straightforward guy, it only seems logical that Stone’s choices are equally laid back.

Stone has specialized in making long pictures, so perhaps my only real reservation about W. is its length.  At just a shade over two hours, the film almost feels too short and self-contained for its own good.  Perhaps after the critical drubbing he took for his three-hour ALEXANDER made Stone re-evaluate releasing W. with a similarly polarizing running time (maybe in an effort to appease audience sensibilities).  Much ground is covered in W., but it could have benefited by a longer running time to flesh out more of its characters (the great Ellen Burstyn’s turn as momma Bush is curiously muted), not to mention that it sort of glosses over many of the timelier aspects of Bush's career (like his shrewd and cunning campaign for his dad back in '88, which is under-developed, as well as his all important spiritual conversion).  There is a three-hour political epic lurking here that feels hampered by Stone's (or maybe the studio’s) insistence on a shorter running time.  A future DVD Director's cut seems painfully inevitable.

No matter, because W. rises far above expectations in the way it does not overly simplify a notoriously simpleminded politician.  Not only that, but no one should miss Josh Brolin here – an actor seriously hitting his stride after appearing in one good film after another, like last year’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – as he gives a truly exhilarating and frequently sincere and vulnerable performance as the beer guzzling, skirt chasing, baseball craving, God searching, and WMD crazed President of the US.  I would also add political pawn to that list, which makes Dubya even more of a sympathetic figure in the film.  Stone does not absolve him completely, mind you, but his goal was not to make, as he called it, an “anti-Bush polemic.”  His real mission was to trace the events that curiously made Bush the man he became today.  

In short: a man not to be misunderestimated.

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