W. (United States, 2008)
It would be grossly unfair to criticize W. as a hatchet job - it's too clumsy for such a description to apply. This movie frequently feels like the shotgun marriage of Nightline and Saturday Night Live. Superficial, uninformative, and inert, this two hour snoozefest isn't even inflammatory enough to stoke a righteous anti-Bush brushfire. W. does for recent history what Oliver Stone's epic Alexander did for ancient times.
W. uses pop psychology to "analyze" the 43d U.S. President and "uncover" his motives. Stone's thesis is that all George W. Bush does is with the goal of earning the love and respect of his father, two things that have been withheld from him. Or, to put it another way, he has Daddy issues. This is the only potential insight offered by W. and it is hammered home with a relentless lack of subtlety and sophistication. Putting aside the buffoonery that characterizes Josh Brolin's over-the-top mimicry of the title character, this is Bush's sole personality trait. Instead of taking this opportunity to provide viewers with a compelling portrait of one of the worst Presidents in this country's short history, Stone has taken the easy way out. W. is a newspaper op-ed cartoon come to life - a broad, unambiguous picture of a dunce. One expects controversy from Stone; one does not expect something this shallow and insubstantial.
The film's non-linear structure allows Stone to visit Bush at various times during his life. The current time period is 2002-2004, with the invasion of Iraq providing the backdrop, but there are also flashbacks to his freshman year at Yale, his first encounter with his wife-to-be, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), his going to work for his father's election campaign, his decision to run for the governorship of Texas, and his "revelation" that God has called him to be President. Absent in its entirety is the pivotal period of 2000-2001. Stone's attempts at scope management are not impressive.
Brolin, like many of his co-stars, gets high marks for impersonation. Like many a stand-up comedian, he has mastered the mannerisms and voice. It doesn't matter that the physical resemblance is passing - he looks more like his father than the good ole boy in the White House. And it's borderline laughable when the 40-year old tries to play 19. Some of the film's other performances recall SNL skits, especially Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, and Toby Jones as Karl Rove. None of them are as dead-on as Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, although Newton gives it a game try. Watching some of the "War Room" sessions leading up to the invasion of Iraq, I couldn't decide whether satire was the goal or a byproduct of the way the scenes are structured and acted.
To be fair, there are a few serious portrayals. James Cromwell lends an air of gravity his portrayal of George H.W. Bush. Cromwell doesn't look or sound like the elder Bush (at least not in a Dana Carvey-like manner), but we get a sense of the basic decency of the man. Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell avoids eliciting snickers from the audience, although he is presented as a candidate for sainthood - the lone sane voice in an asylum. Richard Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney is a little frightening - not entirely unlike the man himself. There's nothing in Dreyfuss' performance that hints at parody, unintentional or otherwise.
The qualities that made Nixon, Stone's previous venture into the White House, riveting cinema are absent here. W. is a collage of made-up conversations woven into a tapestry of recent, well-documented historical facts. The narrative is messy and confused and the absence of verifiable behind-the-scenes documentation results in more than one scene lacking the degree of verisimilitude one would expect of a production of this nature. Some of what's in W. is fiction, but there are those who will accept it as fact.
Timing is another issue. By making a movie so close in time to the primary events it depicts, the film is unable to place those events in any sort of cohesive historical context. In addition, one could argue that, despite still being a sitting president, Bush has never been so irrelevant as he currently is since he first entered the national spotlight. Why make the film now? We have just lived through eight years of this man's administration; what does this movie add to our understanding or knowledge of what has transpired that could not have been gleaned from paying attention to current events since Bush's presidency began?
The last eight years have been among the most turbulent in recent history and there's no doubt that a docudrama about the Bush presidency could have been a fascinating piece of historical speculation. Unfortunately, with its jokey tone and uneven dramatic momentum, W. is not that movie. The film appears to have been conceived with a single audience in mind: those who are more interested in belittling Bush than understanding him. Stone provides the skeleton; we use our own pre-conceptions about the man to add the flesh and sinew. As anti-Bush propaganda, W. is effective. As a movie, it's not.
W. (United States, 2008)
Cast: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Burstyn, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton
Screenplay: Stanley Weiser
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Paul Cantelon
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate