W. is a surprisingly soft-pitch biopic of the most polarizing U.S. President in its nation's history. It's milquetoast qualities are even more inexplicable when you realize that it was directed by Oliver Stone who gave us such incendiary classics as J.F.K. and Platoon.
Stone's film tries to cover a lot of ground, even taking us though "Dubya's" formative years as a carousing frat boy, his abandoned career paths, and issues with drugs and alcohol. At first he comes off as nothing more then an obnoxious, dim-witted, cut-up, but then something miraculous happens: Stone actually manages to generate some sympathy for the guy.
The film opines that the relationship between W. and his pops was downright adversarial. If we're to believe Stanley Weiser's script, George Junior was constantly compared to younger brother Jeb and felt buried under the weight of his own family's legacy. In fact, it wasn't until his father failed to secure a second term as President before W. gained the impetus to make his own bid for the White House.
Which brings me to the film's main thrust: that Bush sought to capture the most powerful seat of office in the world not because he thought he'd be good at the job but because he wanted to impress daddy. In retrospect, this is just as valid an explanation as any. It also speaks volumes as to why this half-baked plan didn't work out very well.
Although I was grossly disappointed that blatantly juicy areas of exploration (such as Bush's creepy "Skull and Bones" connection, charges of election-rigging and his bizarre reaction to 9/11) were either glossed over or jettisoned, I did gain a modicum of insight into the man's motivations. For example, in an early scene, after George looses a Congressional seat to a zealous local Democrat, he vows that he'll "never to be out-Christianed and out-Texaned ever again."
You also get the impression that Bush actually meant to do the right thing while in office but he was led completely astray by neo-con extremists who wanted to use their superior knowledge of geo-politics to bring about a "new world order". This is best illustrated in a chilling scene in which W.'s hawkish advisers make their case for the invasion of Iraq.
After Dick Cheney (played with masterful chicanery by Richard Dreyfuss) cynically observes that 40% of the world's oil traffic flows through the Persian Gulf and that the planet will soon reach peak oil production, he makes a coldly logical and compelling case for the invasion of Iraq. By marrying Iraqi freedom together with regional stability and America's continued dominance as an economic superpower, you begin to understand why Bush capitulated to Cheney's confident obfuscation.
Wisely, most of the cast manages to avoid interpreting these people as broad SNL-style caricatures. Dreyfuss, as I've already mentioned, is quite good and you always get the impression that he's constantly scheming away at some sort of secret and nefarious agenda. Star Josh Brolin does an absolutely fantastic job capturing Bush's unique mannerisms and tics. The scene in which he's forced to contend with a hostile scrum or reporters is appropriately squirm-inducing.
James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush comes across as a human house of cards who's harsh appraisal of his own son conceals a reservoir of personal failings. I really value Cromwell's restraint in the role and could only imagine what a disaster it would have been if he'd attempted to do some sort of Dana Carvey-like impersonation. Jeffrey Wright's take on Colin Powell is a tad labored but his frustration is palpable and well-communicated.
The ladies also acquit themselves rather well. Ellen Burstyn continues to amaze with a nuanced interpretation of Barbara Bush. She's tough, maternal and sensible, often acting as a mediator and defender within her family. Since Laura Bush has always been a non-entity to me, it's great that Elizabeth Banks managed to realize her as appealing, supportive, and empathetic while still keeping her somewhat removed from her husband's trials and tribulations. Only Thandie Newton's broad, cartoonish take on Condoleezza Rice seemed out of place to me, bordering on parody at times.
Director Oliver Stone does a fine job keeping all of his story ducks in a row; no easy task when the script keeps jumping back and forth in time. Although his recurring use of the outfielder dream / nightmare motif effectively conveys Bush's state of mind at various pivotal points in time, it doesn't give us any real insight into the man himself. The script is like a resume checklist which dictates that a lot of things happen to this character, but we see precious few of the internal machinations which should result.
My biggest issue with the film, however, is that it just doesn't go far enough, ending just as Dubya starts to catch major heat over the Iraq insurgency. I get the impression that Stone didn't want to be accused of "piling on" or taking too partisan a stance on the guy. Although the film gave me a chance to view this oft-vilified man in a different light, it's also woefully non-committal and surprisingly tame when it should have been the biopic equivalent of a Texas brush fire.