- Reviewed by: Julian Boyance
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Current Rating 8.17/10 | 30 Votes
Much like one of my other favorite directors, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone has the undesirable knack for bringing forth the carving knives of critics.
It’s a bit unfair too since — also like Lee — although not always on target, probably more so lately, even Stone’s misfires like the epic Alexander, the neo-noir U-Turn, and the biopic Nixon are distinctive cinema. Which brings us to W., Stone’s new “fair and balanced” approach to the biopic on one George W. Bush. “Dubaya” as we’ve all come to know him.
Opening to the musical strains of a patriotic staple, George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) stands in the middle of an empty baseball stadium, fantasizing about both baseball and political glory.
From this field, we smoothly thrust into the White House as Bush peripherally leads one of those highly volatile moments which have now taken on lore, through a meeting of the minds running this nation (some would say into the ground) — Donald Rumselfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), and, of course, “Vice” Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), all of Bush’s merry men and a lady. The scene begins the reproduction of key events forming the heart of the Bush Presidency, mainly, as expected, the decisive moments leading to the Iraq War.
Driving most of the storyline, like many Juniors, W. attempts to forsake and overcoming the pros and cons of being named after your father, more so than ever since it happens to be George Herbert Walker Bush (James Cromwell), 41st President of the United States. Always skeptical, W. remains optimistically hopeful in finally receiving validation from “Poppie”.
After floundering from job to job, W., as he likes to be called, finally does his “Poppie” proud when he aids his father’s sweeping 1988 run for the Presidency. Plus, he learns a thing or two about the political game — shown dubiously by the infamous Willie Horton political advertisement. Something also summarily shown through the classic line, "There’s no way I’ll ever be out-Texased or out-Christianed again,” after an early lesson in Texas politics which shapes W.’s political moxie and fatalistic paranoia throughout.
It’s not long after his father’s victorious ascent that W. receives what he feels is a spiritual call to run for the Governor of Texas. His parents even humorously discourage his unexpected ambition, lacking “faith” in his ability to beat incumbant Ann Richards.
Ultimately for W., the name ends up being the gift and the curse, with a final stinging utter by his father late in the film, creating sympathy for the shoot from the hip - misunderestimated [sic] - younger Bush.
And the subplot of W.’s internally driven brotherly rivalry with Jeb (Jason Ritter) is subtly but vigorously highlighted successfully. On a side note, since this is not articulated in the film, kind of unexpected twist of fate in that prior golden boy Jeb Bush managed to shame himself out of office in Florida.
In between all of this, we jump back and forth, mostly chronologically, between Bush’s wild days pledging at Yale in 1966, his struggling to keep a job which results in pressures from his father to righteously uphold the family name, and meeting his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks). Other than the aforementioned baseball field metaphor, the U.N. speech which led to the Iraq War, both in preparation and actual deliver, centers the leaps for and to between W.’s development from failed politician to eventual leader of the free world. Thankfully, although not exhaustive, as say, the drawn out Chaplin, the film succinctly covers key moments as W. goes from boozehound to born-again.
It’s the patterned structure that dramatically punctuates the film as short paragraphed insights into Bush’s life — and keeps us from being bored by the relatively by-the-numbers (or at least straight forward) take, which for Stone, should be the death kneel, not the starting point for such a vibrant visualist.
Like many films, the third act — which does abtly reveal significant moments, slows the up to that point seemingly briskly paced film.
And in a comical depiction, even when he is mowing down supposed Iraq War allies with stereotypical slurs in a conference call, surprisingly, for a neo-con, Bush has always seemed rather likeable and homey in personality, even though I have vehemently disagreed with many of his policies.
Though Bush’s Texas cowboy persona is funnily shown with abundant, splendidly timed (dim) wit, for example, when referencing “like that guy in Rome," as he compares himself to the infamous Emperor in wording we‘ve come to learn as Bush-speak, and a myriad of visual clues, which includes well-done allusions to W.’s spirituality, there are few laugh out loud moments unless you’re like a few obvious Bush haters who laughed freely at my screening. I do wonder how Bush supporters will respond to the film.
On the acting front, Josh Brolin, Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), and Elizabeth Banks — both women do well with little — all give impressive performances. And Thandie Newton‘s performance, who since Flirting has long been an actress who’s work intrigues me, is a confusing read as it straddles either mimicry or caricature, mostly ineffectively, yet humorous at times. While all others (Jeffrey Wright, Bruce McGill, Stacy Keach, Ioan Gruffudd, and Michael Gaston) do yeomen’s work, this is Brolin’s tour de force showpiece.
When W. was first announced my first thoughts were — this probably won’t work for many reasons, and, second, the anti-Stone critics will have a field day with this one. These feelings tempered my excitement but I was intrigued as to how Stone, in a genre he’s quite familiar with (Nixon, The Doors, and Alexander), would approach such a conflicting personality like “Dubaya.”
Even though I had heard early reports that the film was more even-handed than one would expect from Stone, the pre-release commercials with its infectious use of the Talking Heads classic ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and the satirical style of the trailer made me want to punch the film’s ticket, excitedly expecting a satire of the 43rd President of the United States. And it is. To an extent.
Luckily for Stone, he takes the high road. Unluckily for Stone, he takes the high road. Doing a fair and balanced take may work for Fox News and neo-cons, but the visual panache Stone’s films have provided, and, that we’ve come to expect, is noticeably missing. Much like music critics who decry bands as “maturing,” sometimes critics go to the “maturity” reference whenever visually active directors slow the movement down, but here “maturity” would be synonyms with “stagnant”. Which is how I sum up the film.
The film's biggest hurdle is, although interesting, seeing historical moments regurgitated, however “inside” we get, is the albatross holding this film back. Now, had Stone taken the comedy more broad like, Dick, or satirical, like, Wag the Dog, it certainly would have reinforced a certain aesthetic. And the most telling statement is this, any critic or screenwriter will tell you, without a potent climax, the film loses it entire synthesis, and unfortunately for Stone the climax is not very climactic.
© by Julian Boyance, completed, October 16, 2008
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