Presented with the dismal present, George W Bush procrastinates on judging his own presidency. “History will judge,” he says, eschewing, momentarily, his normally favored gut reactions. Which is to say, “Let’s talk about this after I’m dead.” Alas, history has started judging early. The news isn’t good.
Oliver Stone’s (JFK, Nixon, Natural Born Killers) W., an early attempt to begin to define, for antiquity, the man and the president, essentially presents the sitting lame duck’s story as an oedipal tragicomedy of errors—and errors and errors and more errors—that’s profoundly sad, as well as painfully funny. It’s a film of highly mixed results, both in its tone—which veers between Saturday Night Live-like mockery, straight-ahead biography and searing indictment—and in its artistic successes. Like a well-marbled steak, W. contains small pockets of fat and yet is compulsively edible.
The over-insistent daddy-issue Freudianism that forms the looking-glass, through which Stone strives to understand the “Decider’s” decisions, is the film’s weakest element (and James Cromwell, as the disapproving Bush Sr., is the film’s poorest casting choice). But there are just so many tasty, tender bits of detail.
Particularly delectable are Dubya’s cretinous cast of inner-circle weirdos, notably Richard Dreyfuss’ transcendental impression of Dick Cheney, a wonderfully awkward send-up of Condi Rice by Thandie Newton and Toby Jones’ actuarial, hunchbacked and bulging-brained Karl Rove. For better or worse—and it feels like both, depending on the scene—Stone takes each character’s public persona at face value and has them act exactly the same in private.
But, of course, W.’s success rests primarily on the shoulders of Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), who plays Bush. His performance is admirable, it’s true, but he is upstaged by his subject. The real George W Bush, with his simian visage, cowboy prance and vacant, rapidly-blinking eyes, defies caricature. He already is one.
Still, Brolin does a heckuva job (really), as W. skips back and forth across Bush’s improbable rise and vertiginous fall: from his hazing years as a spoiled C student and legacy at Yale to his oil-less oilman days to “Mission Accomplished,” from crashing cars to crashing the White House (9.11 is oddly not emphasized, nor are his National Guard years). Is there any prestigious job this man cannot fail his way into?
But just when W. seems to be heading too deeply into two-dimensional, sketch-comedy territory or the simple biography of a simpleton, Stone broadsides his chuckling audience with several vicious scenes. For instance, there is some grotesque documentary footage of the Iraq war. Or, most bitingly, a deadpanned and deceptively flippant scene in which a jocular Bush visits with wounded soldiers, going so far as to shake the singed pinky of an immobile and recently immolated vet—and doing his jokey, Texas, happy-go-lucky charmer routine all the while. Even as we process the laugh-from-uncomfortable-embarrassment fact that this man was (and, for a short time, still is) our president, Stone doesn’t let the voting populace off the hook as he reminds it of the very real consequences of our historic blunders at the ballot.
W. would have been exceptionally ballsy back when Bush’s approval ratings were at a historic high. As they reach unprecedented lows, which have gone from being counted in percentage points to being counted on fingers, one is almost tempted to feel sorry for the guy—tragically flawed as he is, with his faith vastly stronger than his competence. Almost.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
With Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Rob Corddry, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and Toby Jones
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
131 min., PG-13