Release Date: October 17, 2008
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright
By Sean Chavel
Oliver Stone’s "W." is not perfect but it’s the most provocative, disquieting and enthralling film out there. This biography of our 43rd President George Bush begins with his fraternity ritual days at Yale and carries through to the end of his first term of presidency. The obvious mistake of the film is that Stone ignores Bush’s second term as President. There are other scenes curiously absent, too, such as Bush’s response as President on the day of the 9/11 attacks or his later contempt of second term opponent Al Gore. But what remains in the film is priceless.
Josh Brolin’s incredible portrayal of Bush should not go unnoticed, although the makeup job on him as young W. is better than the makeup job on him as President W. Brolin’s vocal range and blustery mannerisms is spot on, and once you buy into his limitless abilities as an actor you accept him as Bush, a Bush of any year and for all seasons. Brolin’s recent track record (“American Gangster,” “No Country for Old Men,” the upcoming “Milk”) is impeccable, but what’s on-screen here is to be commended – his maturing transition from hard-drinking good ol’ boy to reformed adult who “finds” God to rising politician to Commander-in-Chief is a genuine feat for the actor.
Obviously Stone isn’t fully commending his subject but he isn’t blaspheming his subject either, at least not bombastically. In fact, early scenes of Bush reveal what a charismatic, magnetic individual he was in youth. His ability to take no b.s. from a oil drilling supervisor is admirable. If W didn’t feel liked by anyone it was from his own father George H.W. (James Cromwell) who eventually became president in 1988. George H.W. is not shy about telling Junior what a disappointment he is to him. The film contains a number of scenes involve father bailing at son or father hooking up son with a good job that ends in failure and letdown. Never-ending lectures ensue between George H.W. and his adult son who pales in comparison to the other son Jeb who eventually runs for governor in Florida. W wants to prove he’s the better son, in fact, he’s obsessed with upstaging his brother. And upstaging his father.
The film crosscuts between his carefree party days and his presidency, so we see how past shaped his hasty decisions as president (this is the number one reason as to why to see the film). W earns halfway respect from his father when he aids him during his 1988 campaign for presidency, and then for the first time finds an opportunity to stick it to his father – chastising him for not following through on the Gulf War and pulling out too early. The film then cuts to his Presidential term, and W is quickly convinced of sending military forces to Iraq to seek and destroy terrorists and dismantle weapons of mass destruction even though there are no clues that is where the primary problem is located. Advisors tell him the “mothership” of terrorists lies in Iran, but due to the sake of W’s own pathology he wants a steadfast and merciless attack on prime (but unverified) targets on Iraq to… outshine his father’s legacy. A father whose course of action as president was too slow, too conservative, not thorough enough.
There’s been a lot of talk that some of the supporting performances seem silly enough to belong in SNL sketches. Balderdash. Yes, I do wish Scott Glenn had a fatter face to embody Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And that Richard Dreyfuss’ demeanor as Vice President Dick Cheney was less churlish. The best secret weapon in the film’s cabinet is Jeffrey Wright as General Colin Powell. Thandie Newton is a tad too much of a hoot as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but that’s not so much of a bad thing. There’s very little one should complain about honestly, especially during a long and extended, and very riveting scene of egos clashing and war planning that takes place at a 2002 cabinet conference that combines great ensemble acting and great writing by Stanley Weiser and Stone.
Much controversy is being made that this film W. is out to unfairly embarrass our current president Bush. I don’t think the film embarrasses Bush as much as it should embarrass the American voter. What we discover here is that we elected a president who stumbled into politics just to prove something to his doubting father, a president who never took decisive action without hearing how to pitch a speech by Karl Rove (portrayed by Toby Jones), a president who would rather watch football than study briefings, a president who would have rather been the commissioner of Major League Baseball than to have entered politics at all. The film makes it rather clear that W dreamed of being a ballplayer or a commissioner more than anything else. That’s the second best reason as to why to see the film. And those are enough reasons as to why "W." is unmissable.