No matter your political persuasion, most can agree that the presidency of George W. Bush is concluding on a low and solemn note, the full consequences of his years in office still unknown. There is no doubt he is one of the most controversial figures of a generation, and his life will provide vast and fertile ground for dramatists someday. Which brings me to my basic conclusion that someday is not here yet, and Oliver Stone's new biopic of the president, W, is a half-baked attempt at telling Bush's story and it suffers from the fact that the real-life tale is far from being over.
There is so much to think about when it comes to the life of Dubya. His transformation from a spoiled ne'er-do-well to the leader of the free world is good stuff. Because of the timing and the subject, it's the kind of biography that requires a director to have a point of view and a nuanced storytelling ability. Stone brings neither to his movie and the effect is a shallow psychoanalysis of Bush that too often borders on absurd and darkly funny in ways that I'm not sure was intentional. There is one thing that nearly salvages the whole ordeal, though, and that's Josh Brolin. To see why, just read more.
The truth is we don't know how this story ends yet, but most of us do know how it all began: Jr. started out as a silver-spooner born into a politically influential family. He aimlessly boozed his way through life without much consequence until he got married and religious and decided to make something of himself. All of this is more or less depicted in the movie.
The overarching Freudian theme is how Bush Jr. is forever wilting under the weighty expectations of his father (played nicely by James Cromwell), who has invested the family's political legacy in brother Jeb anyway. Basically the movie's premise is that Dubya needed a hug from his dad, and had he gotten that kind of love and support he may have ended up elsewhere (maybe he would have been baseball commissioner, which is suggested to have been his first love). But it was his drive to prove everyone wrong — along with a sign from God — that drove him to be president, despite being emotionally undermined by his dad along the way.
It's the kind of flimsy pop psychology that reminds me of an Oprah episode — and that's not even the biggest problem with it. The real laughs (intended or not) come from the cast assembled to portray Bush's cabinet, including: Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell. Whether coming up with the sound bite "Axis of Evil" in the oval office or planning world domination in a dark, cave-like war room a la Dr. Strangelove, the film lurches between eerily familiar and downright parody. Newton's portrayal as Rice is particularly jarring and quite bizarre. Sometimes the movie feels like an ambitious idea that just misses the mark and other times it seems like the rush job it is.
Interestingly enough, Brolin is able to pull a tremendous performance out of this exercise in wacky (and glib) history-telling. His interpretation of the character is a straightforward portrayal that never turns into a joke, despite the well-known (and often mocked) mannerisms of the president. It would be a performance to gush over under any circumstances, but the fact that he shines while playing a guy that comedians have had a field day impersonating for eight years is quite the accomplishment. I have a renewed respect for Brolin's talent, that's for sure.
Actors like Brolin, Elizabeth Banks (as Laura Bush) and Dreyfuss give this movie some life and I found it bizarrely riveting to watch the strange way these events are captured in the film. However, none of this makes up for the fact that it all feels slap-dashed and unfinished. Because Stone has everything and nothing to say about George W. Bush, the effect is just a surreal slog through a sad piece of our nation's history, the timing of which makes it not just a so-so movie, but a kick in the gut while the nation's already down.
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate