Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Oliver Stone’s “W.” has been on any filmic and/or politically savvy individual’s radar for just under a year now, and between early script reports, photos from the set and the movie’s marketing campaign, it was tough to know what to expect exactly. Regardless of the ultimate content, it is/was easily one of the year’s most controversial films, due to the subject matter, and especially considering Stone’s violently liberal bent and reputation for fudging with details. All those things considered, what’s most surprising about the finished product is how fair, even-handed and straightforward it is. It’s also endlessly compelling (if troublingly sloppy) from any standpoint, but will likely disappoint foaming-at-the-mouth liberals on the hunt for another hatchet job they can “boo” and feel superior during. The film does acknowledge the damage Bush has done and holds him accountable, but hypothesizes it all as a result of good intentions, blind selfishness, and a pathetic need for approval, not simply “evil.” The mockery of Bush is kept to a minimum (we do get to experience many a language-mangling sentence), and despite what the film’s marketing would have you believe, it is most definitely a drama (a docudrama more specifically).

However, this would all be merely an interesting experiment without the performances. Josh Brolin’s inhabitation of Bush – getting down the voice, mannerisms, tics and voice inflection – is impressive in its own right, but it’s a staggering performance for reasons beyond impersonation. It’s a tough character to play because there’s not much of a character there, but Brolin refuses to let W. be turned into a joke. From waging war to choking on a pretzel while watching football, he makes him into a sympathetic, human figure, just one whose daddy issues resulted in the fucking up of a country. Elizabeth Banks does fine as the Mrs., but sadly (and accurately), Laura eventually fades into the background and we don’t get to see much of her. James Cromwell is simultaneously authoritative and likeable as Poppy Bush, and Ellen Burstyn gives us a fiery, crotchety, mean Barbara Bush that, according to insiders, is much closer to reality than what we’ve seen in the public eye. Toby Jones and Scott Glenn as, respectively, Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld, are aces with their minimal material, while Richard Dreyfus is masterful as Cheney, rejecting caricature in favor of understated, articulate evil; his “war room” scene explaining his plans for global empire via Iraq is perhaps the most chilling sequence in a film this year. Jeffrey Wright looks and sounds nothing like Colin Powell, but gives a really moving portrayal of a man who fought the good fight, but inevitably caved and sold his soul. The one false note in the cast – and BOOOY is it a false note – is Thandie Newton’s garish, over-the-top, bad “SNL” impersonation of Condoleeza Rice. I kind of understand what she was doing, but I can’t believe nobody stopped her. With her face continually scrunched up, her head bobbing as she speaks, and her voice flatlining on the same shrill note, she’s a perpetual horror to watch.

While a part of me does want to see the manic “Strangelove”-esque farce the ads hinted at, I’m ultimately glad Stone avoided the easy, obvious mockery approach and chose to play things a bit closer to reality and humanization. However, what keeps the film at the level of “good, not great” is the messy, (presumably) rushed approach. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser choose to focus on the 2002-2003 run-up to invading Iraq, punctuated by flashbacks to earlier in W.’s life and career(s) that made him the man he is. While it’s always interesting, the constant flashing back and forth keeps the film from establishing a coherent narrative, instead having the feel of “greatest hits,” so to speak. And if Stone wanted to use the approach of just picking the most interesting bits of this life/presidency, it’s curious (to say the least) that he chose to omit things like the 2000 election and, most glaringly, 9/11. Those looking for a enlightening historical account will not walk away satisfied, but as a character study and analysis, “W.” is fascinating.


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