Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, James
Cromwell, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton. Rated PG-13.
Disgruntled voters hoping for a full-scale evisceration of
the Bush administration might be disappointed by Oliver Stone’s W., which treats
America’s 43rd president so
evenhandedly it could easily be described as sympathetic. Stone, whose liberal
reputation precedes him, is a natural instigator, and there will always be
those who dismiss his historical dramatizations as fanciful or worse. But even
his harshest critics would be hard-pressed to deny that W. is more fair and
balanced than anyone had a right to
Is that a good thing? I’d say it
is. Rather than burying Bush for his mishandling of the war in Iraq – a
temptation that must have been difficult to resist – Stone attempts to uncover
the man’s motivations, to understand why he sent troops to the Middle East over
the objections of the U.N. and his own Secretary of State. That Stone seems
more curious than quick to condemn is one of W.’s great strengths.
While Stone extends Bush the
benefit of the doubt, his portrait is less than flattering. He seems to view W.
as a man whose black-and-white vision of the world is childishly simple in the
best of times, and dangerously ignorant in the worst. Bush is the
quintessential Texas cowboy, a self-styled Washington outsider who shoots first
and asks questions later. Ironically, he is also a man of serious faith, a
born-again Christian whose piety is sincere even when it seems at odds with his
more aggressive urges.
Bush is hardly introspective
enough to recognize such inconsistencies, and that, on some perverse level, is
part of his charm. He is unwavering in his convictions and in his trust in men
like Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, in an appropriately chilly turn) and Donald
Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), even as they recklessly encourage his most half-baked
plans. W. invades Iraq in part because he wants to establish a friendly
democracy in one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, and because he wants to
“kick Saddam’s ass.” But his intentions are basically noble.
He believes that deposing a
genocidal dictator will make the world a safer place for Americans and Iraqis
alike. He believes in good and evil, and in his mind, he’s the man in the white
hat, his hand guided by a righteous, vengeful God. When Baghdad falls, he
declares his mission accomplished, and though the timing of the announcement is
woefully premature, Bush regards it as the proudest moment of his presidency.
The war is won, or so he thinks.
Bush considers himself a man of
destiny, and witnessing his transformation from a feckless frat boy to the
leader of the free world, it’s easy to understand why. Yet even as he reaches
the peak of the political mountain, W. is never at peace. He is driven by a
need to please his perennially disapproving father (James Cromwell), who treats
his elder son as the black sheep of a proud, privileged family. As Junior
squanders his youth with booze and cheap women, George Senior’s contempt is
almost palpable. “Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?” he snarls. “You’re a
Bush. Act like one.”
Because W., in winning a second
term as President, achieves a level of political success his father sought but
didn’t attain, he feels responsible for the Bush legacy, a weight that rests
uncomfortably on his shoulders throughout his adult life. He is most
comfortable dreaming of a life in baseball, far removed from the pressures of
the Oval Office, but his desire to compete with Dad drives him to heights he
may never have wanted or deserved. And that, in the final estimation, is key to
his downfall. In many ways, W. is like a character in a Greek tragedy, a flawed
hero undone by a fatal mix of ego and raging insecurities.
If Stone’s portrayal of Bush is
more respectful than one might expect, Josh Brolin’s performance is brilliantly
nuanced, a far cry from the coarse impersonations of Saturday Night Live. He invests
in the role a basic dignity that
overshadows W.’s casually inelegant and sometimes downright boorish behavior.
Brolin carries the film capably – a necessity, given that Stone trains his
camera on him and rarely strays – but he’s not alone. Thandie Newton’s
Condoleezza Rice is uncanny, from her comically lazy drawl to the gap between
her teeth. But it is Dreyfuss, as the Machiavellian vice president openly campaigning
for a military blitz of the entire Middle East, who leaves the most lasting and
Some have questioned the timing
of W., which follows Bush through the
conclusion of his turbulent first term, but Stone’s story doesn’t suffer for
lack of a definitive final chapter. It is a bold, thought-provoking and utterly
fascinating character study that reveals the kinder, gentler side of a man
previously defined by his disastrous policies and bumbling malapropisms. Stone
acknowledges that W. is unfit to lead, given his rash temperament and misplaced
faith in warmongering strategists, but he is no villain. He is well meaning,
sincere and hopelessly unequal to the task at hand.