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Journalist: "Mr. President, what place do you think you will have in history?"
W. surprised a lot of critics when it premiered in 2008, less than a month before Election Day. The country was expecting a much more sarcastic and spiteful film from Oliver Stone, one with controversial assertions and perhaps a new conspiracy theory for TV pundits to debate.
But Oliver Stone comes neither to praise nor bury George W. Bush. W. surprised everyone: it's a mostly sympathetic look at a man who, the movie concludes, should never have been allowed near an important public office. Stone has been accused of inventing biographical scenes and dialogue for his political movies, and he does a little of the same here. The surprising thing is that W. doesn't invent its political facts, which are all a matter of public record. Stone and his screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) instead put George W. under a psychological microscope, and cast him as an underachiever desperate to earn the approval of his more successful father. It's a fairly convincing approach.
W. shows us the President in the Oval office, recklessly pushing the country into war, encouraged and manipulated by a tight group of like-minded advisors. A near ringer for the callow Chief Executive, Josh Brolin plays George W. as a man desperate to justify himself. This President is willfully ignorant of the complexities of his office and easily led down the warpath by sycophants like Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton). Skulking around the periphery is Vice President Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), a malignant schemer who has no trouble controlling George W.'s actions in office. In a secret meeting just before the invasion of Iraq, Cheney and the other Neocons pressure Colin Powell into going along with their scheme. When asked what the Iraq exit strategy is, Cheney says that there is none: they'll be in Iraq to stay. The war is a pretext for seizing control of Iraq's oil.
The story interrupts frequently to jump back in time to George W.'s formative college years. The President-to-be is pictured as the underachiever of a rich and powerful Texas family. George Senior (James Cromwell) lectures W. about his drunk driving and "tail-chasing" but continues to bail him out of trouble; his mother Barbara Bush (Ellen Burstyn) is far less forgiving. George proves unable to hold a job or run a business, and his drinking continues unabated. Turning to politics, he meets and weds Laura (Elizabeth Banks) but loses elections, and his alcoholism is getting worse.
That's when W. finds religion. George pulls himself together with the help of the Reverend Earl Hudd (Stacy Keach, a fine performance), and wins a sense of accomplishment helping with his father's presidential campaign. George Bush's new faith provides the sense of self-worth missing in his family relationships. Unfortunately, being Born Again also imbues W. with a sense of moral infallibility, the "seize the day" conviction that anything he commits his full energy to automatically becomes a worthwhile cause.
Without resorting to cheap shots, W. presents Bush as an irresponsible brat who eventually matured into an efficient but unprincipled politician. W's leadership style is a wobbly standup routine with lame jokes and frat-boy nicknames. Brolin vocalizes many of Bush's famously mangled sentences, which are direct expressions of the man's inability to form a complex thought: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me... and won't get fooled again." He's everybody's fool, and a national tragedy.
As a final linking device Oliver Stone puts his W. into a dream visual. George stands heroically in the center of an empty baseball stadium, listening to the phantom roar of an approving nation. It's a personal nightmare.
The casting is mostly superb. Besides the minor miracle of Josh Brolin, we have Richard Dreyfuss waxing diabolical as Cheney and Toby Jones an adroitly exaggerated Karl Rove. Thandie Newton's Condoleeza Rice is a dead ringer for the mostly irrelevant yes-woman who served as security advisor and then Secretary of State. On the weaker side is Scott Glenn, who doesn't resemble Donald Rumsfeld in appearance or deed. James Cromwell is solidly patriarchal as George H.W. Bush, but also seems a completely different man than one who sold us "a thousand points of light".
The country has developed a built-in resentment against politically themed movies that assume a righteous point of view, liberal or conservative. Michael Moore's sarcastic, ironic Fahrenheit 911 caused a commotion but failed to derail Bush's reelection juggernaut. If anything, it strengthened the resolve of millions convinced that Bush and his cronies were the nation's only defense against terrorism.
W. can be seen as the work of a kinder, gentler filmmaker. Oliver Stone's first political docudrama JFK still angers viewers resentful of his fast 'n' loose play with historical facts. This new film is insightful, intelligent and entertaining, and scrupulously careful not to overstate its message. W.'s take on Bush '43 may be the one that sticks in history, as it's plausible and fair. It took a perfect political storm of entitlement, arrogance and opportunity to put George W. Bush in the White House, and W. attempts to give us an understanding of the man.
Weinstein's DVD of W. is the expected excellent encoding of Oliver Stone's polished film. At 129 minutes, it's also one of Stone's shortest pictures. The director's commentary stresses his theme of father-son discord, reminding us that George Bush's story might be a Shakespearian play about a kingly dynasty and the evils of power. He also explains why the movie skates so quickly over some of Bush's biographical issues -- the president's "dropping out" of the Texas Air National Guard, for instance.
Stone's son Sean directs Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Presidency, an interview roundup illustrated with choice news film. In a scant few minutes major Bush administration critics calmly dissect the key White House policies that have haunted us for the past eight years. The words "scandal" and "crime" aren't used but the inference is there in every opinion. A trailer is also included, along with a DVD-Rom extra that catalogues the filmmakers' research and annotates the film's text.
Beware which DVD version you purchase, for W. also comes in a full-screen DVD version. A Blu-ray is also available; it lists one additional extra, a gallery of deleted scenes. The disc cover illustration shows James Brolin as Bush draped in an office chair -- without a suit coat and his sleeves rolled up, incidentally. With his presidential legacy reduced to tossed shoes and a record number of vacation days, the image of the slouching President is an apt one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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