W. (2008) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell
W. is kind of an unprecedented film – the political story of a U.S. President currently in office. Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” would perhaps be the only comparison. Oliver Stone’s film is even more ambitious and risky. There are no pseudonyms or alter-egos to hide behind, it’s about real people and real events still in progress.
"W." is not the Stone from those really ambitious days in the 90's when he gave us some truly risky studio films. The absence of Robert Richardson behind the camera, Pietro Scalia's editing and John Williams' music, is a big loss in innovation, but it's by far Stone's best film since "Nixon".
The story begins after 9/11 - 2002 in fact, just when Iraq becomes the next target for the Bush administration.We're immediately thrown into the Oval Office roundtable discussing the term "Axis of Evil". There's Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condolezza Rice, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and George Tenet. All of them are familar actors doing remarkable impressions of these familiar names and faces. As these events lead up to the invasion of Iraq and the search for the infamous WMDs Stone periodically flashes back to Bush's youth and traces the steps which have led to the decisions he's making in the present.
Key to the Bush personality, persona and character is Bush Sr. - the former President, Yale grad, oil man, and CIA Director whose expectations for dubbya are just too big to handle. For the decade of the 70's it's a trainwreck lifestyle, always with a drink in his hand. When he decides to shape up his life, he finds God and kicks his alcoholism. Nothing seems to satisfy the elder Bush, until W. joins his 1988 Presidential campaign and shows his teeth as a fighter and a surprisingly astute right-hand man. Since the real story is not yet complete Stone leaves us with a question mark, but not before he paints for us a unique picture of one of the most 'misunderestimated' figures in American politics.
Stone’s film is first a satire and second a political statement. Unlike “JFK”, there’s little controversy to spark other than the mere fact of making a film about the current President in office. Bush is depicted exactly as he is perceived – a kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who sailed through his youth as a drunk-driving wildcat then got in shape, found God and followed in his Dad’s footsteps to the White House. Much of the humour comes from his common man’s personality, mis-pronunciation of words, confident swagger and his general affability as leader of the free world.
Stoner never gets any deeper than that, and so as an analytical examination of history he fails to reaches the supreme highs of his earlier political gems “JFK” and “Nixon”. Stone does give us two hours of fun engaging entertainment though.
Josh Brolin, currently on one of the most surprising runs of great films in recent Hollywood memory, turns in a truly great performance, carrying every ounce of the film. It takes about a third of the way through before the novelty of Josh Brolin doing a George W. Bush impression wears off and he disappears into his new skin.
Brolin and Stone continually walk a dance of complete buffoonery and genuine sympathy and understanding of the man. The strongest depth of character is his lifelong battle with his father George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell). One of the key dialogue scenes in the film is when Bush confesses to his pastor that people don’t understand the burden being born a Bush. As we get into the mind of W. we see the insecurities of a young man with enormous expectations. His dalliances, though irresponsible and careless are the work of a young man struggling to find his identity - something everyone can identify with. And so Bush's journey, well planned out by screenwriter Stanley Weiser, is about his acceptance of himself and not from his father.
Behind Brolin is a long list of great supporting actors as his aides. Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell, the only one against the war in Iraq, is distinguished and honourable; Richard Dreyfuss, a spitting image of Dick Cheney is the villain - a crafty war monger who directs traffic quietly in the background. It's Dreyfuss' best role in over 10 years. The other standout is Toby Jones, as Karl Rove, the man who was with Bush the longest and who 'trained' him to win his campaigns.
Some may see this portrayal as too strong, some may see it as not challenging enough. But by the end, what is the point Stone's trying to make? While Stone is tough on him he leaves his reputation in tact. Considering the ballsy ambitiousness of such a project, Stone succeeds admirably. It's a fine place-in-time portrait of a simple man who happened to rise to the most influential public figure in the world. Enjoy.