Approaching an Oliver Stone film is one of the toughest things to do for a film critic. The man is a lightning rod for controversy, whether it is accusations of revisionist history or outright bias. That he is the one directing the first biopic about President George W. Bush will rile up plenty of people, and the cartoonish, over-the-top trailers won’t help quell new accusations that are bound to surface. George W. Bush is now the most unpopular President in U.S. history, and Stone has set out to illustrate his life in a way that is humorous, alarming, and sometimes downright scary. A hit piece? Perhaps, but if it makes us reflect upon the last eight years and pledge to never let it happen again, it will be a victory for Stone.
W. jumps back and forth in time, beginning with a cabinet meeting during Bush’s (Brolin) second term. At this time Bush is forceful and largely intolerant – hell-bent on immediate action for anyone associated with terrorism. He is also a deeply religious man, ending each cabinet meeting with a deep prayer. The film associates its present-day events with segments of Bush’s youth, including fraternity initiation at Yale, several jobs and business failures, and a constant yearning to please his father as he is in the shadow of his brother, the more successful Jeb. As his political aspirations begin to come to fruition, Bush surrounds himself with the people who would later become his cabinet and key advisers. His ascension in the political arena became an unstoppable force, as he could appeal to the religious right, the average working man, and the middle-class housewife with his easy-going demeanor and no-nonsense speeches.
While Stanley Weiser’s script gives us plenty of gaffes and all-around stupidity to laugh at (virtually every “Bush-ism” is utilized at some point), the film does delve into darker, more sinister territory from time to time. The centerpiece of the movie is the cabinet meeting that ultimately sparked the Iraq War. Led by a forceful, fear-mongering Dick Cheney (Dreyfuss) and backed by nearly everyone in the room, a plan to seize a nation that never attacked us sprung into action. It’s not the spread of Democracy that is the ultimate goal, it’s gaining control over the Middle East’s plentiful oil fields. Only a dissenting Colin Powell (Wright) warns of the potential consequences of invading a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11– all of which have taken place since the occupation began.
The casting is truly spot-on. Josh Brolin, who has really become a hot commodity over the past year, excels as Bush. It’s not the best impersonation I’ve seen, but he captures the finer points of the man in question. He does a fantastic job of carrying the personality traits throughout the decades, and it’s very easy to believe that his W. of the present day, a born-again Christian, was once the hard-partying, hard-drinking former self. The supporting cast is superb, led by Richard Dreyfuss and his morph into the most secretive Vice President we’ve ever seen. He steals every scene he is in, and is always chilling. Also of note are Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, James Cromwell as Bush Sr., and Toby Jones as Karl Rove.
W. is not without its problems. It’s fairly obvious that Stone rushed this project along to ensure its release prior to November’s election. Events in the middle of the film seem to happen too quickly and too easily. In addition, overall tone is a concern as the movie is over-the-top at some times and deadly serious at others. I found the dramatic insight the most engaging, particularly since we’ve all witnessed Bush’s gaffes and divisiveness over the past eight years. What W. never is, however, is boring. An Oliver Stone film often takes a few years to ripen, and it will be interesting to see how this biopic plays a decade or so down the road.
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Length: 131 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.
Theatrical Release: October 17, 2008
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Stanley Weiser
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Thandie Newton, Ioan Gruffudd