The Good: Moments of character insight and decent direction, General format of story
The Bad: Pacing, Acting (casting), Light on DVD extras
The Basics: Oliver Stone's W. is strangely unsatisfying - especially to those who despise the administration of the former president - from the casting on down.
Having survived the administration of George W. Bush (which was not always a forgone conclusion in my case), I finally found myself at an emotional place where I was ready to open up to some entertainment about the former president. I had, previously, watched the documentary George W. Bush: Faith In The White House (reviewed here!) and been irked at the propaganda feel of that. So, when I felt ready to lighten up and allow myself to be entertained by the foibles of the former president, I got out W. on DVD. If there was anyone ready and eager for a film the ripped into the administration of George W. Bush, it was me.
Unfortunately, W. is not that film. Oliver Stone, strangely, takes the safest possible route creating a timid, neutral presentation on the 43rd president that ultimately makes no real statement in any direction. This is the story of a hapless man, trying desperately to live up to his father's expectations, not of greatness, but rather of productivity. In W. George H.W. Bush does not have aspirations that his son Junior will do anything extraordinary, merely that he will do something and stick with it long enough to accomplish something. Sadly, Oliver Stone allows most of the compelling moments in the last eight years fly by with little recognition of their importance or George W. Bush's role in creating the history we have just lived through.
Following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush and his cabinet and advisors consider how to strike back at those involved. As Bush's approval ratings soar, key members of his inner circle - Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice - encourage Bush to link Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks to allow a strike against Iraq by U.S. forces. As the speeches are altered and interrogation techniques are approved, the United States moves closer to war and George W. Bush considers how he got to the most powerful position in the world.
He reminisces of time in Texas and at Yale, his fraternity days and the times when he was just a young, rowdy guy who drank, danced and had sex with some blonde he didn't have money for a ring for. He dreams of baseball and catching a hit that might otherwise be a home run and he slouches from oil rigs to investment banking jobs to working on his father's presidential campaign, while George H.W. Bush continually bails him out of jams he gets in (sometimes literally). George W. Bush meets Laura, finds god, gets sober and on his father's campaign meets with the extremists in the Republican base, specifically Karl Rove, who sees in George W. Bush the potential to be the tool the ideologues need to restore their vision of America to the presidency.
W. might have succeeded has it not been released in 2008. Seriously. I write this not because the film would be any better years from now, nor because of the hope the Obama Presidency created to foster the impression many of Bush's most egregious positions and executive orders would be overturned, but rather because the film had to compete against Frost/Nixon. The strength of Frost/Nixon is arguably on the performance of Frank Langella, a man who neither looks nor sounds like former President Nixon. Langella could not (obviously) get over the first part, but within moments of his appearance on screen, Langella's body language and speech patterns are those of Richard Nixon. Langella transforms into Nixon and it is eerie and powerful to watch the movie because the performance is so amazing.
Sadly, Josh Brolin does not pull off George W. Bush. Josh Brolin, who impressed me with his performance in No Country For Old Men (reviewed here!), is cast to embody George W. Bush and he fails utterly, save two shots in the entire movie, one on the baseball diamond, one talking to his speechwriters with his hair rumpled. The rest of the time, Brolin utterly fails to embody Bush. It is not just that he does not look much like Bush, but Brolin does not move like the former president at all. Will Farrell had a much better take on George W. Bush for one simple reason; presenting a parody of George W. Bush often presents the most real body language of the man. Before those who still adore our previous president jump on that, go back and watch videos of George W. Bush; the man has a very loose body language. His head wobbles, when he speaks - especially in the early years of his administration - he shifts from foot to foot, and when he first appears before cameras, he looks more determined to not break into a smile than anything else. He's an easygoing guy . . . he's a GUY. What some found charming or appealing was his accessibility and that largely came from his body language of being a loose, cool guy one could sit down, have a beer with and watch the game with.
Josh Brolin completely fails to get that. He is stiff throughout W., treating everything as if it is serious and while he appropriately furrows his brow whenever anyone asks Bush to consider something, Brolin doesn't get the performance right. Thandie Newton, who plays Condoleezza Rice, pulls off her brief supporting role better than Brolin manages to get the main role.
Unfortunately, because so many of the figures are public figures still at the forefront of the American consciousness, the look of the characters is incredibly important and here the casting and make-up were not as precise as they ought to have been. Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell's forehead is a little too high, Toby Jones's Karl Rove is too obviously toady and James Cromwell - whose work I usually adore - is hit or miss as George H.W. Bush depending on the scene. In fact, the only casting that is perfectly executed is Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss assumes the look and bearing of the former vice president perfectly, though he essentially replays his role from The American President to pull this off. Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Burstyn both evolve into the roles of Laura and Barbara Bush, respectively, but they do not appear on screen convincingly as either at their first appearances. Oliver Stone ought to get credit, though for taking two beautiful women and toning down their looks to try to fit the roles (conversely, Newton plays her Hollywood good looks perfectly in the role as Rice, who always seemed attentive to her appearance).
So, the casting is seriously off. Add to that, W. is poorly paced and more than the character lacking direction, there are too many portions where the viewer is left feeling like Oliver Stone does not know what he wants to be saying with the film. Ultimately, he ends up saying very little. As Bush is pressed toward war by Rove and Cheney, Powell stands as the lone dissenter and Bush gleefully steamrolls over his objections to the group's plans. Powell, unfortunately, is presented with only limited backbone and the viewer ends up feeling more empathy for him than for the hapless title character.
More than anything, Oliver Stone seems to be making a film that takes the tact that George W. Bush was a guy who did not truly care about anything who stumbled into the presidency. Once there, he was content to let others do what they felt, signing off on critical orders based on how many pages he was handed. He is not a caricature here as a witless man or incompetent president, merely a guy who roams uncaring through the world until he is at an important office that actually makes demands upon him. The character is not pitiable, nor is he or his exploits interesting to watch (just as many of us were uninterested in participating in his years as president).
Now on DVD, W. features a similarly listless and controversy-free commentary track by Oliver Stone where he avoids any real thorny issues and talks more about the making of his boring film. There are trailers for other Lionsgate films and there is a mildly more engaging featurette on the actual Bush Administration in which several liberals decry his policies without getting too specific or relating it back to the film.
And keep in mind, I was ready to like this film! But at the end of the day, I wanted W. to inform or entertain or some combination of both. It did neither. Instead, it plodded along for far too long with a guy who could be virtually any Southern or Midwestern heir doing little and evoking little empathy or interest for doing it.
For other works with Toby Jones, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Snow White And The Huntsman
The Hunger Games
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
My Week With Marilyn
Captain America: The First Avenger
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part II
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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