It must be hard being Oliver Stone. Anytime you pitch a project to interested studio heads, the same kind of questions come to the fore: What are the politics involved? What's the conspiracy theory you're embracing/debunking? How radical is the approach? How subversive is the message? These are the clouds that have hung over the American auteur since the days of Platoon, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July. Even when he announced a desire to pay homage to the heroes of 9/11 (in the wonderful if slightly wimpy World Trade Center), many thought he'd be taking the enemy's side. So it was with his amazing existential biography of the nation's last sitting President. When Stone announced his take on George W. Bush, those on either side of the bully pulpit expected the worst. He was either going to eviscerate or - God forbid - embrace the 43rd Commander in Chief. Instead, as he did with Nixon, Stone delivered a devastating investigation into one man's unbreakable arrogance, and the early life that lead to such a strict, stalwart stance.
There was only one thing that appeared to make George W. Bush happy. No, it wasn't the drunken times as a student at Yale. No, it wasn't the promise he made to his father - George H. W. Bush - to work for a few years before settling into the family business of power-broking. No, it wasn't the stint as a wildcatter, or as head of his own company. It wasn't even his stint as Governor of Texas or handpicked President of the United States. No, George W. Bush was happiest when he was owner of MLB's Texas Rangers. It's a memory that haunts him even as he pushes his country to war with mean-spirited (and motiveless) Middle Eastern countries. Thanks to his perceived public mandate post-9/11, the leader of the free world feels empowered to do whatever he wants. And thanks to a band of clueless cabinet members and advisors who seem Hellbent on taking over every oil field between Tehran and Baghdad, he's about to become the world's biggest liability, and America's greatest jingoist joke.
As part of the commentary track found on this DVD, Oliver Stone makes the case for his approach on W. This isn't a factual biopic, he argues. Instead, this is the last eight years as seen from George W. Bush's personal perspective. This is not a hatchet job or a case of taking cheap shots at an obvious and quite deserving target. Instead, Stone decided to use the failing son of a career politician as the main frame of reference. Once you realize that everything in the film - ever conversation, every policy decision, every lame brained bubble headed idea - is framed from the subject outward, all becomes clear. This was never going to be the dissection many liberals mandated. It was also not going to be a full blown 'forgive and forget' apology. Instead, Stone was convinced that the best way to understand our flawed foreign policy in the Middle East, the nationalistic war on civil rights here at home, and the crass, clinging strategies of neo-conservatism was to illustrate them as part of someone who wholly and honestly believes in each and every dogmatic design. And the results are illuminating, to say the least.
W. is amazing political theater. It's a series of questions underscored by complicated and sometimes conflicting answers. It's a pointed satire and a slice of actual history. It avoids the obvious while occasionally contemplating the obscure. With remarkable performances by Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Banks, and Toby Jones, as well as that perplexing point of view offered by Stone himself, what we wind up with is a unique viewpoint on a subject few can fully know. Complaints that Stone failed to sink his fangs into Bush's apparent lack of leadership are pointless. This is not necessarily meant to be the final word on the man's legacy. Instead, by using numerous sources, W. creates a weird kind of consensus. We learn of his flagrant father issues, the problems early on with keeping a job, his love of baseball and almost anything sports, and the predetermined desire to invade Iraq (and arguments re: Iran) that existed even before the Twin Towers tragedy.
The most amazing sequence happens about halfway through, when Vice President Dick Cheney takes on Secretary of State Colin Powell over the need to use force, not diplomacy, to handle the mess in the Middle East. In a speech that's more supposition than truth (Stone admits this), Dreyfuss breaks down the situation like this - invade Iran and Iraq, take the majority of the world's oil reserves, sit back satisfied and tell the rest of the planet to f**k off ! Supremacy from a strategy based in supply and demand, with just a little neo-con paranoia to make it all seem so necessary. With more than an hour to go after this amazing moment, W. finally finds a way to mark Bush's ineffectualness as a leader. By simply having the executive sit back and blank check this ridiculous radicalized idea, by highlighting how the Administration strong armed dissenters into 'taking one for the team', by developing the whole 'angry daddy's boy' backstory, we come to understand the stupidity of our entire efforts for the last eight years. All that's left is 60 minutes of snickering, and the state of America circa 2009 is relatively self-explanatory. W. may not be the crucifixion everyone wanted, but in this case, Stone let reality hoist the man on his own poisoned petard. The results and the remarkable film made from them, speak for themselves.
Offered by Lionsgate in an excellent DVD package, the visual aspect of W. looks pretty amazing. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is crisp, colorful, and loaded with details. Stone tends to shoot things in less than spectacular style, but his compositions and framing are quite successful here. Overall, the transfer it polished and very professional.
The only aural option provided is a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix, and it has to be said that the results are wonderful and very effective. There are several scenes where the characters get together and chat en mass, and the sonic situation really accents the logistical and locational aspects of the sequences. The music, by Paul Cantelon, does a brilliant job of accenting Stone's vision, and the tech specs serve it well.
While the disc is not overloaded with added content (and the deleted scenes that Stone consistently mentions are nowhere to be seen, dammit), the bonus features offered are quite stunning. Those with the ability to access the DVD-Rom functions of the package will be treated to a copy of the script, fully footnoted and annotated, explaining the sources for each of the scenes and the conversations included therein. It's a powerful and provocative read. So is the documentary "Dangerous Dynasty - The Bush Presidency". Created by Sean Stone (Oliver's son), it's an 18 minute re-examination of the entire family legacy. Finally, the commentary deserves another mention. In it, Stone answers all the questions critics and audiences might have, explaining material that he feels is obvious, while highlighting inferences and in-jokes that may have missed their mark. As an extra, it's a superb supplement. It would have been nice to see the deleted sequences, however. Stone's support makes them mandatory viewing.
W. was a clear case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't". The hatred for Bush among liberals and similar-thinking citizens required that the man behind JFK and Nixon eviscerate this numb-skulled naked emperor. For those on the right, the conservatives, and anyone who celebrates flag first, freedom second, the portrait was not positive enough. Bush is a hero to this segment of society and nothing Stone did could capture said courage. By keeping things in check, by sauntering down the middle between both sides of the aisle, the filmmaker could be accused of trying to have it both ways. What he created, instead, is a masterful bit of medium manipulation juxtaposing the truth against the tall tales to see which one suits the situation better. W. deserves a second chance on DVD and earns an easy Highly Recommended in the process. You can forgive the Vietnam Vet turned motion picture maverick for taking it a little easy this time around. After all, he's tired. Secondly, the target is just too easy. Being fair was the most radical thing Oliver Stone could do to George W. Bush. This bravura bio-pic is indeed one drastic redefinition of the man.