Dir: Oliver Stone. US. 2008. 129mins.
Oliver Stone hasan uncanny knack of making movies which are better appreciated many years after they are made, and W feels like it will be one of them. A scrappy dip into the many lives of the infamous George W Bush, it could never live up to pre-release anticipation that it would deliciously eviscerate the Bush adminstration so vilified around the world in recent years. Instead, rather like in Nixon, Stone serves up a dramatic portrait of the man steeped in the mythology of a wealthy family and political dynasty, who falls from favour with the same spectacular swiftness as he rose to it.
And you can't help but feel that Stone was won over somewhat by Dubbya. As portrayed in a wonderfully brash and fearless performance by Josh Brolin, he is as charismatic as he is stupid, as idealistic as he is dangerously naïve.
Bound to divide critics and audiences in the US, itself currently divided as dramatically as ever in its history,W will nonetheless be released in a blaze of publicity that will drum up some strong opening numbers, even if neither side will be satisfied by Stone's vision. International numbers will ultimately be greater than domestic, as foreign audiences marvel more objectively at the story behind the man who invaded Iraq on a lie and brought the world to its knees.
For all the speed with which Stone strove to finish the film in time for the elections next month, W should have longterm commercial value even after Bush steps down from office. At its best, it holds up as a dramatized character study of the father and son presidents which will be watched keenly in years to come. At its worst, it is submerged by an over-populated cast of characters and a tone which shifts awkwardly between dramatic storytelling and smartass political comedy.
Stone will also disappoint many with the choices he and screenwriter Stanley Weiser made. The film focuses very specifically on the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and concludes with the realization that the campaign is another Vietnam. Intimate scenes between Bush and his cabinet from 2002-4 are intercut throughout with scenes from his life starting in the mid-1960s at Yale when he is inducted into a rich kids' fraternity.
We see how Bush couldn't hold down a job, battles a serious drinking problem and how his initial attempts to get into the family business of politics fail in comparison to his brother Jeb (who is, disappointingly, never characterized here).
Later, Bush quits drinking and becomes a born again Christian, embracing fundamentalist religion even as he steps up his political ambitions, first working on the campaign to get his father into the White House in 1988 and then standing for governor of Texas himself.
Back in recent years, Stone portrays the process whereby Bush, backed by Cheney (Dreyfuss), Rumsfeld (Glenn), Rove (Jones) and Rice (Newton), decides to take the war on terror into Iraq and forcefully prove that Saddam Hussain is hiding weapons of mass destruction.
But the film is not a biopic by any means. Stone doesn't choose to explore W's campaign to become president, nor the Florida recount or 9/11 itself. And by completing the film this year, he naturally can't cover the current financial crisis which erupted on Bush's watch, instead ending with a humiliating press briefing during which the 43rd president crumbles amid questions of his legacy and mistakes.
If the film itself fails to figure in the year-end awards shortlists, Brolin must surely be considered a likely best actor nominee. Wholly immersing himself in the part, he doesn't imitate the president so much as breathe human complexity into him. Rudderless and restless as a young man, Brolin nonetheless plays him as a likeable enough fellow, a harmless jock, attractive to women and tortured by his father's expectations. As a president, Brolin plays him as a man of some intelligence, even if his arrogance and machismo are on full ugly display.
In the enormous cast, Cromwell is powerful as the dignified Bush Sr, Dreyfuss, Wright, Jones and Glenn are excellent as W's partners in crime and Banks fine as Laura. Thandie Newton, mugging for the camera something rotten as Condi Rice, has little to get her false teeth into, but then again the cast is full of renowned actors with little to do from Jesse Bradford and Noah Wyle to Jason Ritter and Ioan Gruffudd, who has one short scene as a bullied Tony Blair.
Emperor Motion Pictures
Global Entertainment Group
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