Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cronwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeffery Wright, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Bruce McGill, Ellen Burstyn
- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Lionsgate Films
Reviewed by David Medsker
ere’s the thing about Oliver Stone’s movies: they are neither as good nor as bad as people make them out to be (“except for ‘U-Turn,’” my wife just added), and “W.,” Stone’s ripped-from-today’s-headlines movie about the life of George W. Bush, is no exception. It’s similar in tone to his portrayal of Richard Nixon, in that Stone offers an unflinching look at the man behind the colorful colloquialisms, yet does his best to humanize him at the same time. The problem is that no movie is going to accurately capture the essence of anyone, never mind someone as polarizing, and fascinating, as Dubya, in the span of two hours.
Josh Brolin plays our Commander in Chief (or “Junior” to his father George H. W. Bush, played by James Cromwell), and we see several periods in his life, from his booze-fueled days at Yale – where he thoroughly impresses his fraternity brothers as a pledge with his intimate knowledge of the older brothers – to his aimless years drifting from job to job, to the day where he decides to enter the family business of politics. This news actually displeases his father, who has already groomed George’s younger brother Jeb as his successor. But W. is undaunted and, despite having done jack shit with his life, as his longtime advisor Karl Rove (Toby Jones) informs him, he parlays his “job” as owner of the Texas Rangers into the role of Governor of Texas, and ultimately the White House. Then 9/11 happens, and W. realizes that he has been given a golden opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his father by putting down Saddam Hussein for good.
And you better believe that the father-son melodrama is played to the hilt here. Remember the “Saturday TV Funhouse” skit involving the genie repeatedly humiliating some Muslim enemy in the hopes that it will be enough to please his father? That is not a far cry from what happens here. Cromwell’s H.W. is, well, a lousy impression of Bush the Elder from an acting standpoint – he doesn’t even bother to get the vocal tics down, never mind the accent – but you get the sense that he nails the rigid, no-nonsense tone that H.W. surely had with W. And while we’re talking bad impressions, Thandie Newton may bear a striking resemblance to Condoleeza Rice, but she totally overdoes the accent, making her sound like some unholy mix of suburban Chicago and rural Minnesota. Yikes.
Brolin, on the other hand, fares quite well here. He doesn’t really look the part, but he gets the voice, the boisterous conversational tone, and the passive-aggressive nature just right. The women, as usual with Stone’s movies, are underwritten, though Elizabeth Banks does a good job of portraying Laura Bush as one level-headed, extremely patient individual. Jones and Richard Dreyfus have the juiciest roles as Rove (“Don’t say anything; I’ll tell you what to say”) and Dick Cheney (“What you mean ‘we,’ Kemosabe?”) respectively, but Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Colin Powell is simply heartbreaking as he tries fruitlessly to reason with Bush’s bloodthirsty staff.
If only Stone had advised writer Stanley Weiser to put as much effort into the events the actors are playing out as he did the characters themselves. We see the origins of several scandals that rocked Bush’s administration – yellowcake, WMDs – but there is no follow-up on any of them. Maybe the non-linear timeline made that difficult, but as incoherent as the finished product is, it couldn’t have hurt.
“W.” will probably provoke strong reactions from both sides of the political spectrum, but the truth is that the movie plays it right down the middle. Stone’s Bush is smarter than his reputation but misled and undone by his incompetent, secret-keeping staff, a man who tried to prove to his father that he’s his own man but didn’t accomplish a single thing without Poppa’s help. There’s a hell of a story here, but “W.” doesn’t dig deep enough to see it through. A grand opportunity, missed.