Whether or not it was premature for Oliver Stone to make a movie about George W. Bush’s presidency — what with Bush still occupying the Oval Office — is certainly a matter of taste. After all, Mao famously told Nixon in the early ’70s that it was “too soon” to evaluate the lasting impact of the French Revolution.
But even though Stone can’t resist the occasional lapse into cartoonishness, “W.” winds up being a thought-provoking examination of a crucial turning point in American history. What may wind up being most shocking to the conservatives who have been pillorying Stone for months is how sympathetic the film is to its leading character, a man who managed to become one of the nation’s most popular and least popular presidents over the course of two terms.
The film begins with Bush (played by Josh Brolin) running the Oval Office meeting where the term “axis of evil” is created. In one swoop, Stone gives us a roomful of actors impersonating well-known figures, including Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney.
But just when “W.” starts feeling uncomfortably close to being a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, the film takes us back to Yale in 1966, where young George is enduring pledge week at the DKE house and impressing his brothers by remembering their names, thanks to his habit of giving them all nicknames. (We’ll see the adult Bush doing the same thing later in the film, referring to a female Asian journalist at a press conference as “Miss China.”)
The contemporary scenes depict the run-up to the war in Iraq — yellowcake uranium, aluminum tubes, WMDs, the whole shebang. In a lengthy and memorable sequence, Powell tries to act as a voice of conscience while Cheney lays out the nation’s need for oil and the necessity of putting Iraq and eventually Iran under U.S. control. In flashbacks, we see W. commit youthful indiscretions, make fruitless attempts to gain the approval of his father (James Cromwell) and mother (Ellen Burstyn), all the while winning the heart of Laura (Elizabeth Banks).
Stanley Weiser’s screenplay lazily connects the Freudian dots, painting W.’s obsession with Iraq as a way to win Poppy’s love once and for all. (The movie posits that Bush the younger thinks his father lost the 1992 election because he failed to take out Saddam at the end of Gulf War I.)
Despite this historical reductionism, and the somewhat awkward shoehorning of some favorite Bushisms (“Is our children learning?” et al.), Weiser interestingly examines a life and a presidency that are very much in progress and actually manages to create sympathy for a political figure who is currently despised by a significant portion of the populace.
The acting is similarly all over the place, with Brolin’s fascinating turn dominating the film; he manages to make that invisible transition that all stars of biopics hope to accomplish, where the audience stops watching the actor and just accepts him as the character. Granted, Brolin leaves out many of the tics (the smug laughter, the sneer) that make the real W. so irritating, but he’s nonetheless created a fascinating portrait. Banks comes off as much warmer than the real Laura Bush, although the brown wigs have the odd side effect of making her look like Parker Posey.
Probably the worst of the cast is the talented Newton, who tries too hard to capture Rice’s singularly eccentric facial expressions and vocal mannerisms (to say nothing of those eyebrows) and comes off like someone in a “Mad TV” sketch. Among the White House insiders, it’s only Dreyfuss and Wright who make a strong impression as, respectively, the devil and angel on W.’s shoulders.
In the short term, no matter how well-made “W.” is, it’s uncertain what audiences will want to cough up the price of a ticket — Bush’s remaining fans won’t trust Stone to do right by their man, while foes of the president won’t want to spend a few hours being reminded how much they don’t like him.
Whatever your preconceived notions, “W.” manages to be both exactly what you thought it would be and something else entirely. Which, ultimately, makes it like every politician who ever existed.