President George Herbert Walker Bush (James Cromwell, "Babe," "The Queen") held his family name sacrosanct and was and was appalled with the behavior of his namesake. With political hopes pinned on son Jeb (Jason Ritter, TV's "Joan of Arcadia," "The Deal"), imagine the surprise when the black sheep of the family turned himself around to become the 43rd President of the United States, distinguished from his father's term eight years earlier by his middle initial "W."
Director Oliver Stone ("JFK," "Nixon") completes a presidential trilogy of sorts with "W.," notable for its arrival on screen while its subject is still in office. And yet one can't help but wonder if Stone had spent more time if "W." wouldn't have been a better film. As it stands, "W." is a mix of good and not so good performances, of dynamic moments based in reality interwoven with some wobbly flashbacks and flat fantasy sequences. Josh Brolin does an often uncanny interpretation of George W., but in the end the man seems as deep as a bowl of peanuts. If that's really all there is it's scarier than I thought.
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser ("Wall Street") begin their tale in 2002, when Bush, hard to believe now, had an 80% approval rating. It is the meeting where speechwriter David Frum (Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser) coins the term 'axis of evil' and the whole merry gang is gathered in the Oval Office to participate. As George W. Bush the president's story continues on from here (Stone does not cover 9/11, but W.'s fall into the war in Iraq), a parallel begins in 1966 when W. is going through a Yale fraternity hazing ritual involving lots of alcohol. The young George Bush reacts negatively to any notion of following in his father's footsteps but has no idea what else he'd rather do in life, unless it has 'something to do with baseball,' and by 1971 he's getting torn a new one by dad after failing in the oil fields, a sporting goods store and investment banking and getting some girl named Suzy pregnant. 'All you know how to do is drive drunk - who do you think you are? A Kennedy?' demands dad.
The villain of the piece is Cheney, who Richard Dreyfuss ("Jaws," "Poseidon") plays with a sinister smirk and secret agenda barely hidden under begrudging deference. Dick first brings up Iraq over lunch with the president (apparently George W. has pretty disgusting table manners), who asks why he's bringing up business during what he obviously views as a recess of sorts then asks what he needs to do, a question also frequently asked of Rove (Toby Jones, "Infamous," "City of Ember"), the villain's shadow as it were. Later, the decision to invade Iraq is hashed out in a conference room, only Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright, "Casino Royale") voicing serious dissent, in a scene that seems like something out of "Dr. Strangelove." (This, and a bit where his same advisors follow him around the fields of his Texas ranch to the old "Robin Hood" television series theme are the film's highlights.) It is notable that W. feels the need to remind Rove that he thinks for himself and Cheney that he is the President and that he seems to be sincere.
If Rove is the architect and Cheney the puppeteer, it's Poppy who is the motivator. W. finds his course once Daddy asks him to help run his campaign for the presidency (Jeb wasn't available). He is born again under the tutelage of Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach, "Honeydripper") and quits drinking. His Willie Horton ad is the final nail in Dukasis's coffin, but when Bush Sr. wins, the son is thrown for a loop as now the shoes he has to fill have just grown a lot bigger. When he decides to run for Governor of Texas, mom (Ellen Burstyn, "Requiem for a Dream") states outright that he'll never win while dad objects because it's supposed to be younger brother Jeb's time, not his. All the while, Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks, "Definitely, Maybe"), met at a backyard barbecue where they each intimidated the other, remains steadfastly supportive. When George wins, his father gifts him with a family heirloom and writes him a note.
And so, when George W., advised by C.I.A. director George Tenet (Bruce McGill, "Vantage Point") on the presence of WMDs in Iraq and goaded on by Cheney, switches his focus from Afghanistan to Iraq and invades, the father who never knew how to talk to his son wrings his hands in Kennebunkport and the son, believing he is pursuing God's will, feels he needs no paternal advice. It's an age old tale, writ large and paid for by many ('How many Americans is Iraq worth?' is a question considered before Cheney orders that military caskets be given a media blackout.)
The film is best when it is being horrifically satiric yet based on fact and written accounts and can be quite funny as George's proclivity to mangle words is peppered throughout ('a question we don't hear often 'Is our children learning?' is a great double whammy and did he really refer to Guantanamo as Guantanamera?!). It's the formative years that don't really add up. We're given quick hits of him quitting an oil rig, but nothing of his controversial Air National Guard service and his time owning a baseball team is used mostly for fantastical reverie (W. imagines himself center field, going for a fly ball, imaginary crowds cheering).
Brolin is also better as the Presidential W. that the younger, but he has the body language and voice down cold. Best in the film is Dreyfuss, and Banks is surprisingly effective as the First Lady (she comforts W. by offering to get tickets to his favorite play - 'Cats'). Their twin girls never appear and are hardly mentioned. It is troubling, though, to see so many fine character actors go down. Scott Glenn's ("The Bourne Ultimatum") Donald Rumsfeld is a bland incompetent boob who never stakes any reason for the man's place. Thandie Newton ("Run Fatboy Run") transforms herself as Condoleezza Rice, but she's so stiff the character comes across as an old woman (and the script paints her a yes man gofer with little voice). Most disappointing is Jeffrey Wright's Powell. He never gives the man the proper level of stature and authority and is never once convincing.
Stone paints a man who didn't want the family legacy, but couldn't resist the urge to compete with it, and, incompetent, surrounded in the job with power mongerers, yes men/women and the equally clueless. "W." has its moments, but doesn't feel fully formed.
Robin did not see this film.
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