> With W, Oliver Stone once more attempts to probe the American psyche as he casts his eye over one of the key political figures of recent history, President George W Bush. Shot on a shoestring budget ( $25 million: chump change by Hollywood standards) in 6 weeks and released just before the beginning of the recent electoral race, W is a sympathetic attempt to understand the man and his motives which makes it an interesting companion piece to Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon, another speculative/historical study of a flawed presidential figure.
As it stands Bush has become an international joke, a mocked and vilified figure who’s questionable actions and those of his cabinet have been discussed and analyzed in detail by the media from the tragedy of 9/11 onwards and up to the present day. One can’t help now but see the guy as a kind of amiable fool, unaware of the consequences of his actions and easily cajoled by more intelligent, sinister aides who make all of the crucial decisions for him.
So how much more intrigue and dramatic mileage can Stone get out of Bush’s life story that we haven’t already been made aware of? What reason is there to go and see this movie? Which for some people would be akin to attending an evenhanded account of the life of Adolf Hitler right after the end of World War 2.
It’s certainly a dilemma for the film-makers and not quite one they manage to overcome but it’s nonetheless a brave stab at trying to understand what drives one of the most divisive figures of the 21st Century.
The film opens with Bush (Josh Brolin) alone in a baseball stadium in front of an imaginary crowd and then cuts to his early years in the 60’s and 70’s as a drunken party animal at Harvard and a regular guy without any political ambitions. He drifts from job to job, disappointing his father George Bush Sr (James Cromwell) and who dotes on the more ambitious younger brother Jeb.
Bush Jr falls into politics, running for congress in 1978 and then helping out in his father’s successful presidential campaign in 1988 as a campaign advisor. Along the way he gives up alcohol, becomes a devout Christian, meets his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), becomes Governor of Texas and then eventually Leader of the Free World in 2000.
The film cuts back and forth between these formative events and the machinations behind closed doors which lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
What we are left with is an impression of a fairly likeable(!), directionless good ol’ boy who became a politician in order to gain approval from his father and emerge from his younger brother’s shadow and who after his religious conversion sees politics as something of a divine calling.
On screen and centre stage for the entire movie, Brolin is commanding and never devolves into caricature, humanizing Bush and conveying his sense of confusion and his off-hand ruthlessness often disguised in folksy charm. It is a full-bodied portrait and proof that Brolin is getting better with every role he takes on and is one of the most subtle and economical actors out there at the moment.
James Cromwell as George Bush Sr and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney have the more developed supporting roles and both infuse their characters with their considerable presence with Dreyfuss in particular impressive as a wolf in sheeps clothing. The rest of the impressive cast also do a solid job of sketching their real-life counterparts from the minimal characterization provided by Stanley Weiser’s script.
Toby Jones portrays Karl Rove as quiet, subservient and almost worshipful of Bush, Thandie Newton nails Condoleeza Rices’ physical mannerisms but isn’t given much to do, whilst Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell seems to be the only member of Bush’s cabinet with a moral compass. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush brings her usual natural vivaciousness to a thinly written part.
The depiction of the internal relationships within the White House prove to be the most engrossing scenes of the movie, offering some insight into the dialogue that goes on behind poltical closed doors.
So we have solid performances, occasional moments of dark humour and is a solidly crafted but unspectacular political drama and while as already mentioned, the film has it’s merits it seems a bit undernourished and holds back it’s punches
Aside from the opening and closing scene and a dream sequence there is very little evidence of the Oliver Stone we once loved and hated. Obviously budget restrictions prevented him from going overboard in terms of production design but here his storytelling approach is almost too subdued almost serene at times.
He has made clear that his intentions were to make a fairly respectful portrait of the man but aside from it’s stellar cast and director, W could almost be a slightly above average HBO movie. If this film and World Trade Center are anything to go by, it seems that Stone is mellowing in his old age and a glorious opportunity for a no holds barred political satire for the modern age from this formerly fiery provocateur has well and truly missed.