>> W. (7.5/10)

I don’t think anyone expected W. to be a thematic companion piece to Oliver Stone’s Alexander, but, yeah, here it is–the story of one man’s struggle to escape his daddy’s shadow.  W. is a drama about what it means to be a Bush, not quite the severe political autopsy we were all expecting from someone as outspoken as Oliver Stone.  The problem here is that I’m not sure that I buy the conflict.  Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser take a fantastic ensemble cast (with the distracting exception of Thandie Newton as Condaleeza Rice) and then sit back and do a lot of armchair psychoanalysis that strikes me as a bit too simplistic.

W. takes a page from Scott Alexander amd Larry Karaszewski’s biopic style (Ed Wood, People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon), each scene sort of standing as its own vignette, with memorable supporting characters and an energetic, almost playful, tone.  Wesier is a little heavy-handed with foreshadowing, and he’s so earnest in making sure that George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) is sympathetic, that it really does affect any emotional realism the relationship with “Poppy” Bush (James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush) is supposed to have.

Am I really to believe that George W. Bush’s only motivation is simply “One day I’ll show you, Poppy”?  I don’t buy it.  Part of the reason I don’t is that it doesn’t reconcile itself with Bush’s real life image, but, even more damning, is that it doesn’t reconcile with the scenes in the film itself where Bush is interacting with his cabinet.  That Bush feels remarkably real.  What we see in the movie are two George W. Bush’s, in one bravura performance by Josh Brolin.  One Bush is a perpetual teenage boy, constantly vying for Daddy’s approval.  The other Bush is a fish-out-of-water with a peculiar resolve to never be outsmarted by those that he knows in his heart are smarter than he is.

George Number One’s scenes are well-acted, well-staged scenes, but repetitive, in the same way Alexander‘s daddy issues were repetitive.  Stone and Weiser can only make one point about it, having never been privy to a single private conversation between the father and son.  Every scene with Cromwell and Brolin boils down to the same argument about expectations and the Bush’s good name.  It is a conflict that could be mined for some real drama, but in W. it never goes beyond the surface argument.

George Number Two gets all the really good scenes.  There are probably four or five extended moments with his cabinet that absolutely crackle with electricity.  The ensemble, Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Geoffrey Wright as Colin Powell, is a knockout, and it’s too bad the Academy doesn’t have a “Best Cast” award.  This film deserves it.  (Thandie Newton is an oddball as Rice though, playing her as a strangely robotic series of vocal tics and odd postures, without once making her feel like a real person.)  Dreyfuss and Jones make incredibly believable manipulators, never twirling their mustaches, but instead offering advice and guidance to a president that they know is out of his element.  I was also surprised by the gentle way that Stone and Co. handle religion.  Stacy Keach plays the preacher that brings Bush to Christ, and their scenes together are remarkably sensitive and respectful to the Christian faith.  It would’ve been very easy to make it into a joke, something movies usually do, and here they do not.

All in all, W. is a very good film, within spitting distance of being a great film, but it could’ve benefitted from some time and distance from its subject matter.  The emotional thread in W. is flimsy, and I’d gladly have traded more glimpses into the political machinery for scenes of James Cromwell glowering with disapproval at his son.  Josh Brolin gives an amazing performance as our President, and it doesn’t matter which side of the poiltical fence you fall on to acknowledge that.  He inhabits the role, pushing it beyond an impression and making it real.  He’s the single best thing about W.

It might be interesting to revisit this film in about ten years, to give it my own sense of time and perspective.  I have an inkling that this film is going to age fairly well, finding an audience through the years that never would’ve purchased a ticket for it at the time of release.  It’s a startlingly level-headed approach to an extremely controversial figure, and while it may lose something for not being a razor-toothed satire, it gains something as well, namely a realism that is rarely applied to Bush and company.  A reminder that they are people, not political cartoons.

7.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

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2 Comments

  1. I saw the movie, or part of it. Whether it was the cold I seem to have caught this week, or the dreariness of the day, I walked out of the movie after an hour and a half of complete flatline dull. I am not a fan of the prez…and I may have expected more comedic attacks…nevertheless, I was really disappointed in the movie.

  2. Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men… over all, i don’t doubt that ‘W.’ will have the effect Oliver Stone desired


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