, 129 min, 2008
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Stanley Weiser
Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ioan Gruffudd
Oliver Stone’s W. is a hypnotically absorbing portrait of George W. Bush, the current President of the United States. Fresh from taking on another controversial American subject in World Trade Center (2006), Stone is one of America’s finest filmmakers, and he brings all of his technical brilliance and political insight to bear on this one.
Stone, having given us the similarly linearly challenged masterpieces JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995), this time juxtaposes between 9/11 and the beginning of the current Iraq War with chronologically leapfrogging flashbacks (ala’Lost) to W.’s early days at Yale, the moment he met his wife and First Lady Laura, his various past ventures into the worlds of politics and major league baseball, and the many fights and disagreements he had with his famous father and mother over his lack of direction in life (they apparently approved more of Jeb).
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weister (Wall Street) give us a thought-provoking, engaging and surprisingly sympathetic look at the early life of maybe the world’s most controversial figure, allowing us to get better insight into the man he was and the series of dramatic life-changes which led him to be the man he is today (his reasons for going after Saddam Hussein, for example).
Is the film going to be a stunning shock to anyone who pays attention to politics lately and the things that have occurred in this country over Bush’s 8 years (two terms) in office? No, probably not. But it does offer entertaining and intriguing notions as to how Bush, and by extension the American people, got to where we are.
Josh Brolin is remarkably convincing and magnetic as W., with ample support from an all-star cast – like previous Stone biopics, the spirit is in tact even if the realism is flawed, but Stone fills his film with a gallery of standouts, including: the lovely Elizabeth Banks as Laura, the terrific James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as George H.W. and Barbara, the mousy and vaguely effeminate Toby Jones as Karl Rove, the Machiavellian Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Stacy Keach as Bush’s minister, who helped him reach his goal of spiritual renewal and sobriety, and Jeffrey Wright, fed-up beyond measure, as Colin Powell; Scott Glenn and Ioan Gruffudd as Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair, respectively, are not given too much to work with. For me, the real standout, however, is Thandie Newton, who is not so much an impersonator as an embodiment of Condoleeza Rice; her mannerisms and vocal qualities are spot-on.
Stone’s film has been reported as being a satire of the funniest President in history (with the deadliest legacy), but it’s really not as comedic as it’s touted as being (indeed, one of the two most satirical elements is the soundtrack!). Can Bush be laughed at? Of course (he, afterall, practically satirizes himself), but like Nixon, he embodies the banality of evil. Stone ultimately pities and strives to help us understand, not to judge or theorize, or to simply skewer him on a blade of over-the-top exaggeration.
Like World Trade Center, Stone pretty much lets his characters and history tell the story, leaving his bag of cinematic fireworks at home (a few stylized moments here and there, and Stone’s occasional allowance for a hypothetic flight of fancy into W.’s psyche feel right, not superfluous or wrong-footed).
Of all the questions asked, the most frequent is: Why does Stone let his film stop after the Iraq War is declared? Perhaps because history is still being made, and since Bush’s legacy is still in progress, the film instead, wholly appropriately, ends on a note of unmistakable but apt metaphor, with a sly sideways wink. Indeed, the ending may be the most satirical element in the film. This is one of the year’s best films.