Oct 21, 2008
The movie doesn't work, which is a huge pity, not only because it could have been a fitting last rebuke to the Worst President Ever, but because Josh Brolin's wonderful performance gets a little lost in the generally schematic presentation.
Brolin is turning out to be one of the best young actors today. Check him out as an evil cop in American Gangster, and of course in No Country for Old Men. He is capable of wrapping himself around character with lots of confidence and very little artifice. You cannot really see the sweat behind the work. Anybody can imitate George W. Bush. Just squint hard enough and laugh like a moron and you are halfway there, but behind Brolin's solid imitation there is a wonderfully nuanced performance. It is evident that he took to heart the actors' maxim that you have to like the characters you play, even if they are terrible people. He makes W. quite likable in his ignorant fratboy way; cocky and dim but seemingly sincere. A hard partier, a world class shirker in his youth; his born again status is presented as a combination of political opportunism and a yearning for a compassionate father. And who could be more compassionate than Jesus H. Christ? For someone so directionless, and so unmotivated by challenge, religion seems to have provided structure and relief from all that aimlessness. Once he is in power, being president affords him the luxury of little power trips, like making his entire cabinet take a walk in the killer Crawford sun. In his inner sanctum, he watches football and chokes on pretzels. Forget all the Judd Apatow movies: here is the overgrown kid extraordinaire. He's the Decider.
But Stone makes sure we don't forget he is also a bully. He credits Bushie with the infamous Willie Horton campaign that supposedly won his father the presidency. W. is not too uncomfortable with Cheney's plans for torture. A blessed fool, he ain't.
Stone has concentrated on the conflict between Bush Pére and his son to explain W.'s misadventures with power. I understand there are several books about the Bush dynasty that deal with this issue. However, I am a little tired of this trope of American male directors, the obsession of the son with the father who is too hard to please. It can't possibly be the single explanation for everything that goes wrong in America.
Apparently, in the case of W., the father issue is fatally compounded with a case of terminal and dangerous shallowness. W. became relentless in his wish to be taken seriously by his Poppy. According to the movie, he would have been content in the world of baseball, but his father frowned on it. We should have been so lucky.
Critics are saying that Oliver Stone is too soft on Dubya. I don't think that this is the problem with this movie. The movie shows plenty enough the lazy, coddled, childish, immature, simplistic bully who became this country's president twice. It's more that the movie feels rushed and unfocused and too busy trying to present some sort of Greek tragedy instead of really going for the jugular. The film plods along, oscillating between a few sharp, pithy scenes and mostly heavy handed stuff, wavering between characters that seem like animatronics, and actors giving fully realized performances. It's always a problem with biopics, especially those of people who are still around. James Cromwell as G.H. Bush is excellent, but Richard Dreyfuss is totally underused and disappointing as Satan himself, Dick Cheney. I would have liked to see more of Bush's relationship with Dick than with his Dad. In the end, all we want to know is who is really calling the shots. There is one scene where Cheney tries to sell Bush on the Iraqi nuclear weapons scam by asking him if he would eat the lettuce on his sandwich if he knew it could be poisoned. He talks to him in a language he can understand, but except from a ridiculous scene a la Dr. Evil in which Cheney looks at a map of Iraq and Iran and swoons about the oil reserves, his responsibility is given short shrift.
The father-son conflict gives Stone the leeway to take on the corruption underlying our democracy and that is one of the few interesting points the movie makes. It shows Bush Pére always pulling strings (reluctantly) on behalf of the son: to get him out of jail in college, to get him into Harvard, and, as he himself says in the movie, to get his his ass safely out and victorious in the infamous Florida recount, to which he sent James Baker to save the day and ruin this country forever. The people in Dubya's cabinet are mostly old friends of Poppy. It does make you wonder, do we live in a fiefdom or is this a democracy?
James Cromwell plays Bush Pére without relying on easy imitation. He is gangly and soft spoken but his contempt for his son oozes out of his every pore. It's a great performance about a man who has a son who keeps embarrassing him and with whom he does not connect at all.
The rest looks like a pageant out of Epcot center. The always fabulous Jeffrey Wright looks too small for Colin Powell, and Scott Glenn seems too wholesome for Rummy (a way over the top Clooney would have been my choice). My adored Toby Jones plays Karl Rove as a little impish, enthusiastic sidekick. Rove and Cheney, the two people who could have benefited from a little more machiavellian oomph, seem rather pedestrian. Is that the point? The banality of evil? If this is the case: bo-ring.
You will be relieved to know that that gorgeous woman, Thandie Newton, is wearing a fantastic prothesis and suitable helmet hair and she looks and talks just like Condi Rice. However, I never understood her motivations. Is Stone saying she is just a yes girl? I also never understood if Colin Powell is the only person in the movie who vehemently opposes the path these people are taking on Iraq, why does he cave in? Stone doesn't even try to venture a guess and it feels sloppy. It is never entirely understood, except for the possible culpability of pheromones, what exactly did Laura Bush see in her husband (he is charming but always talks with his mouth full). And as much as I love Eileen Burstyn, and as good as she is, I would have loved to see Margo Martindale as Barbara Bush. It would have been spooky. The female characters are all underwritten, the movie is as subtle as a zetz in the head with a frying pan, and the end result is mystifyingly boring.
However, it is worth sitting through. I respect Stone for not wanting to do another easy satire. But this film needed much more political punch, and smarter writing. Someone like Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) would possibly have written a much more focused, pithy script.