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Oliver Stone's "W.": Not with a bang but a whimper

by Chris Knipp
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
"W." is a tale of oedipal conflict leading to national disaster.
It might be nice if Stone had produced this semi-comic Cliff-Notes "Citizen Kane" about the second Bush earlier—before the latter's approval rating sank to one point above Nixon's just before his resignation and three above the all-time low. At a time, that is, when anyone might still have needed convincing how bad this president is. But the film's aim (though a faltering one) isn't so much that as it is to tell a tale of oedipal conflict leading to national disaster. The disapproval that matters to George W. Bush as seen here isn't the nation's, but his father's. He botched Iraq as his dad didn't; he was overshadowed by his younger brother Jeb (Jason Ritter). He was a failure as a young man and he will be a failure in the eyes of history. Of course, Stone is highly biased. But considering the extremism he is capable of, this is a surprisingly mild, even flat, cinematic statement, and it fails to leave any very clear, emotionally powerful impression.

Using a series of highly selective early life "highlights"—mostly in fact low points—Stone and his writer Stan Weiser tell the story of a child of privilege who never succeeded at anything till he got a baseball team to manage and successfully ran for governor of Texas...and incidentally, he gave up alcohol and turned to God. These scenes from the early bio alternate with key moments in the run-up to the Iraq war and early stages of the debacle. This key period in the man's life, and tragic moment in American history, is the time when Josh Brolin, as "W.," the name many of his intimates call the man, suited and gray-haired, most looks the part. In earlier sequences Brolin is both too old and too chiseled and handsome to represent the carousing frat boy, oil rig washout and non-congressman who convinces a nice librarian named Laura (Elizabeth Banks) to be his wife. In the later ones, Brolin looks right—but lacks the real W.'s continual wrong-headed conviction, his tone of absolute corn-pone authority.

That Brolin's performance isn't caricature may help Stone's portrait to remain intermittently satisfying even to die-hard fans of the man. But despite the film's title, Bush's character in the movie is overshadowed as president not only by the major figures of his administration—a stolid, troubled Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), the gnome-like manipulator Karl Rove (Toby Jones), his reptilian sidekick Condi Rice (Thandie Newton), the ominous destroyer and lord of empire Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfus), and a less evident, less convincing Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn)—but above all by the tall, austere disapproving literal father figure of George Herbert Walker Bush (well embodied by James Cromwell). None of these actors can be faulted, and their versions of the originals are sometimes arresting. So are others, such as Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush and Stacy Keach as an evangelical minister instrumental in W.'s born-again Christian recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction. Still others, such as Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris) and General Tommy Franks (Michael Gaston), are also sketched in, but only the main players close to W. stand out.

The paradox about "W." is this: the key revelations about George Bush Jr.'s life lie in the past. But all the scenes that really grab you are from recent history.

The paradox about "W." is this: on the Wellsian "Citizen Kane" model the key revelations about George Bush Jr.'s life lie in the past. But all the scenes that really grab you are from recent history—moments often so familiar you can recite the lines. Given this disconnect, the structure ultimately doesn't work or make sense as what the film purports to be—an analytical biopic. The best parts were already done better by David Hare in his play about the run-up to the Iraq invasion, "Stuff Happens." Because Hare depicts events step by step in a series of detailed dialogues involving the principals, including Tony Blair (played briefly in the film by Ioan Gruffudd), with lines both real and imagined, he has a really exciting and painful story to tell. "W." chiefly evokes this kind of effect only in one key war room scene where Cheney triumphs, Powell is overruled, and Bush is wholly overshadowed. Details about politics, like Rove's manipulations in getting W. elected in Texas and the nation, or the role (if any!) played by Washington leaders outside the administration, are left out entirely. This has little of the significance and intrigue of "The West Wing." It really is Cliff-Notes history. Events are outlined. Real suspense is lacking.

Other scenes where a Presidential W. seems drunk without being so, or has a nightmare about sparring in the Oval Office with an angry father, seem ragged, because Junior has already lost the spotlight, which now belongs to his disastrous administration, his quagmire occupation, and the powerful men and women around him—and so the film has lost its way.

This isn't a total disaster. It may even help the public see and understand George W. Bush. If it convinces some swing-voters not to want to elect another Republican president, that would make the otherwise odd timing of the release logical. But "W." certainly isn't a great movie. The home-state sequences and use of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" as background, instantly evoking comparison's with George Stevens' magnificent (if uneven) "Giant," only set Stone's biopic in a cinematic context where it's totally overshadowed by many other films about presidents, including Oliver Stone's own complex and controversial "JFK."

©Chris Knipp 2008. Chris Knipp writes from San Francisco.

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This story was published on November 5, 2008.