Despite the constant thrive for objectivity, it is foolhardy to believe that one's own outside opinions and inherent biases have no effect on how one views a film. In the case of Oliver Stone's quasi-controversial "W.," I find it necessary to preface my review with a brief disclosure of my political "baggage," which surely had an inescapable and unmeasurable effect on my evaluation of Stone's work.
I voted for George W. Bush in 2004 (the first presidential election in which I was old enough to cast a ballot), but like so many Americans I soon saw the error of my ways as more information was revealed about the inner workings of his administration. I now consider myself "anti-Bush," if you want to put a label on it, but I also recognize Bush's good intentions, the understanding of which is key if you wish to gain a proper appreciation for the man and his place in history.
He isn't some kind of omnipotent boogey-man who is somehow responsible for every aspect of the American government's considerable failings. He is, I believe, a good man who was simply out of his element as president, and was too stubborn and willfully ignorant to properly govern and make key decisions. He surrounded himself with equally arrogant people, and allowed himself to be manipulated by some of the most chilling and calculating minds in American politics. In short, Bush deserves our pity as well as our scorn and, perhaps, even our sympathy.
I framed this as my personal estimation of Bush, but it also applies to Stone's view of things. This "okay guy/terrible leader" summation is the same one offered by the movie. Here, "Dubya" is portrayed by Josh Brolin as a cowboy misfit who was willing to go to great lengths to remove himself from his father's shadow and establish himself as his own man, worthy of the Bush legacy. The film makes the valid argument that in trying so hard to do great things and be one of the "good guys," George W. Bush instead succeeded only in tarnishing his family's name forever.
No matter how things "turn out," there is no erasing the mistakes triggered by Bush's own hubris. So, the whole thing could be viewed as a modern-day Greek tragedy played out on the international stage. Stone takes this idea and runs with it. Granted, it's an interesting perspective, but the examination of Oedipal rivalries can take you only so far. In the end, "W." isn't probing enough to function as a compelling psycho-analytic study of its subject, nor is it comprehensive enough to serve as a worthy historical drama, or funny enough to work as a surrealist comedy. But that doesn't stop Stone from trying his hand at all three.
The movie has a quirky sense of nightmarish comedy about it, but it's structured like a standard biopic. One half of the film depicts Bush's rise to power, starting with his days as a Yale fraternity screw-up. We see his warped dynamic with his "poppy" (played by James Cromwell), his string of fruitless jobs, his failed congressional run and finally his successful bids for the Texas governor's seat and the U.S. presidency. This rise is spliced together with the film's other, "modern day" half, most of which deals with the invasion of Iraq. These episodic vignettes are interesting enough as stand-alone pieces, but they never work together to form a unified whole. The film consequently feels jerky and rushed, often without any tangible purpose.
The cast is also a crapshoot. In spite of my initial skepticism of nearly all the casting choices, some of these performances surprised me. Richard Dreyfus makes for an effective Dick Cheney - ice-cold and borderline sociopathic, but not without his own forceful and persuasive brand of logic. In a small role, Scott Glenn perfectly embodies the blissful ignorance of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And as looming father figure "poppy" Bush, Cromwell is suitably imposing. Unfortunately, many cast members are wasted in underdeveloped roles (Rob Corddry as Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, Ellen Burstyn as matriarch Barbara Bush, Ioan Gruffudd as British Prime Minister Tony Blair), and others are reduced to the level of caricature. (Thandie Newton's bizarre, birdlike interpretation of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice is particularly unfair.)
At the center of it all is Brolin, whose portrayal of Bush is one of the only wholly positive things about the entire production. He gives an impeccable impersonation, but his performance goes beyond the level of mere mimicry and into the realm of the inspired. This easily could have come across as some sort of goof, but Brolin sells every ham-fisted minute of it. An Oscar nod for Brolin is likely the only major recognition the film will receive, and it would be deserved. "W." may not be the final word on the man and his legacy, but Brolin so perfectly captures Bush's absurdist nature - his unique, funky dunce vibe - that it is difficult to imagine anyone ever topping it.
"W." doesn't even come close to matching "JFK" and "Nixon," Stone's other "fake but accurate" depictions of U.S. presidential goings-on. Those were serious, provocative films made by a filmmaker in his prime. "W.," meanwhile, represents another sub-par effort from a fading talent. It's certainly not the unmitigated disaster that many were expecting, but the whole thing feels too rushed and superficial - too safe - to be of much interest to anyone but political junkies.
"W." is rated PG-13 for profanity.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.