W. Directed by: Oliver Stone
Cast: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Banks
Time: 2 hrs 9 mins
Plot: The story of President George W. Bush (Brolin). This is a touching story of how our present President came to be, and why he may still be unsure about how he actually got here.
Who’s It For? Not for everyone. In fact, about 24 percent (Bush’s approval rating at press time) of you will absolutely hate the methods Stone uses to present a faux-biopic where no amount of fiction could possibly paint a more honest portrait of the most troubled President in recent memory. Many (you know who you are) will engage in spurts of laughter not often heard in joint cinematic experiences.
Expectations: Stone likes to tackle heated issues, particularly in the political vein. Though he’s gone on record swearing this is not a political film, rest assured it’s largely about how the political process could not exist without a disregard for the truth, no matter what the cost. If you’re one of those people who believe everything you read or see, you probably think this will be the greatest biopic ever made. While it’s hardly that, it’s certain your excitement is warranted. Oliver Stone is many things, but one thing he is above all else, is a riveting storyteller.
Josh Brolin as George W. Bush: There is a fine line drawn in Hollywood between acting and mimicking. One is a well-respected art, the other more of a staged satire. While you do believe Brolin is our forty-third President you must be careful before campaigning for the versatile actor as the front-running Oscar candidate. What we have here is a textured performance that hits all the right buttons. He’s funny without being trite, and even very likeable in moments. We see one of the world’s most hated individuals portrayed as a regular guy whose dim-wittedness, and overzealous born-again philosophy slowly gets him in over his head. Brolin doesn’t mesmerize as much as he simply does a great impression. Score: 7
James Cromwell as George H. W. Bush: Cromwell decided to interpret the former Commander-in-Chief in a very unique way. Where Dana Carvey opted to deliver an over-accentuated Southern twang, he chooses to speak sans the accent. It actually works. It’s almost refreshing to see the elder Bush in this different light. We believe the disappointment he has in his son, and share his disbelief that “W” finds himself at the political top of the heap. This is Cromwell’s job; to ably present this man as someone who’s too old and tired to dispute his son’s overachievements. What could have been a blunt impression is actually an endearing portrait of the man half- responsible for our present President’s very existence. Score: 7
Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney: There is one moment where Dreyfuss makes “that” face the Vice President so annoying uses to display disagreement that got the biggest laughs from the audience. His role is minimal, but effective, and it was wise to present Cheney in minor doses. He makes the most of his screen time but struggles to make the role any less mundane than the actual man himself. When all you’re asked to do is accurately present evil, you needn’t give us more than dark, sadistic, deeply vacant eyes. Other than the aforementioned comedic moment, Dreyfuss justifiably does little else. There wasn’t much to work with as it were. Score: 6
Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush: You know what, it never felt right. She’s an attractive, likable actress whose comedic talents are wasted on a woman who has a perpetual smile and cyborg-like demeanor. Yes, this is a gig she should have taken. You don’t turn down Oliver Stone when he offers you a role. Though it’s great for her career, there’s too much depth in Banks’ eyes, and the real Laura just doesn’t seem as though she possesses that genuine wholesomeness of the girl-next-door (Banks does). You don’t teach someone to swim, and then ask them to tread water. Got me? Score: 5
Talking: The script presents Bush as a man you couldn’t possibly hate after first meeting him. Though you quickly learn his cordial nature is a front, when Brolin speaks, you believe him. How else could you validate his success in the political market? The interactions between father and son often evoke sympathy for the (younger) man, you occasionally forget how much he’s messed this country up. Stone elects to drop Bush’s most infamous speech-muffs into intermittent conversations rather than simply reenacting the public events themselves. This is a smooth move, considering how much his audience loves to laugh at our “miss-underestimated” leader. Score: 7
Sights & Sounds: You will love Bush’s daydream sequence in which he’s making a spectacular catch as a Texas Ranger (a team he owned in the 80s). It’s moments like these that ignite the assertion that he’s simply a man-child whose boyish tendencies remind us why America needs a new leader. Stone is actually telling two stories here, one about his troubled past (addiction-riddled), and the other about how he’s applied what he’s learned (very little). The ebbs and flows of the past fittingly intertwine with the present (which is prior to the 2004 election). Thandie Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) is so comically refreshing in her hilariously nuanced performance it’s a wonder she doesn’t have more screen time. Score: 6
Best Scene: When Bush and his sharp team of war strategists are strolling through Camp David, going over the details of the 2003 preemptive strike in Iraq, he’s proudly striding ahead pawning off their advice as his own. Despite the heat, and beads of sweat lining his cabinet’s faces, they are all dressed for work. Not Bush. He’s covered in denim, sleeves rolled up, cowboy boots on, the lone-star leader he’s daydreamed about. The decisions they are making will make or break his legacy, and despite the utter importance of the subject matter at hand, Bush is childishly giddy and boastful. Despite his pride… He gets them lost. Perfect.
Ending: This is a story that hasn’t ended as I write this. Bush is still at the helm, and despite an approval rating that continues to spiral down the toilet, he’s still smirking through press conferences he’s hardly qualified to make it through without mucking up his prewritten script. The film itself leaves us the way it found us; in utter disbelief that Bush fooled us into thinking any of the decision he’s made are his own. Though Stone may have editorialized certain aspects of reality, his message is clear: “W” is a puppet, and the depressingly dry Cheney (as well as Karl Rove) heads a slew of masterminds who routinely veto Bush’s by-the-gut philosophy on doing things.
Questions: How did Stone get away with using real names? Maybe I’m just too dumb to realize everyone else knows the answer to this question, but I’m too lazy to Google-up an answer.
Rewatchability: Absolutely, but it could be fun to study Brolin’s performance more closely. Think about what I said regarding acting v. mimicking. If acting is all about finding “that place” to conjure up the emotions in a fictional person you created, how could mimicking an actual person be anything other than impersonation? Are films like W. necessary, or just the very definition of mass-escapism? (Movies are usually the latter. Who wants to think in a movie theater?) We all agree that a director with a sense of humor is a director who can make great films, but why did Oliver Stone feel obligated to satirize a President who satirizes himself everyday? Brolin obviously studied up, and his work deserves to be studied in and of itself. Just don’t try to convince yourself Oscars should go to people who merely mock the mockingbird.
OVERALL This is one of the most anticipated films of the year, and sitting in the theater before the lights dimmed, there was a buzz you rarely see anymore. I had jitters going in because the very existence of this film hardly made sense. The timing was all-wrong. This being an election year, and with the fate of our nation being decided in less than three weeks, why are we retrospectively reexamining the life of a man we’ve already decided to detest? W. is a well made film about how a person’s shortcomings can be forgivable as long as they are acknowledged with a sense of humor. George W. Bush understands that he’s no genius, and Brolin forces us to understand this without re-igniting the anger we’ve collectively allowed to simmer for 8 years. This is hardly a masterwork, but Oliver Stone simply cannot make a crap-film. He pulls far fewer punches than you’re expecting. If he succeeds in any way it’s in actually getting us to sympathize with the a simpleton of a man whose right-leaning, born-again, recovering-addict ways should make us hate him even more. You will leave the theater with no new conclusions drawn, or new perspectives from which to view the man. But, you will be glad you saw it. George W. Bush may not be the most well spoken president in history, but his presidency has never been boring. The film never is, but it’s hardly a ground-breaking piece of work (just like the man upon which it’s based).
Final Score: 6/10