Unlike its subject, "W." can't win. At this point in the current administration, I doubt even Oliver Stone wants to see an Oliver Stone film about the life and exceptional good luck enjoyed (and squandered, if you agree with the filmmaker and his screenwriter, Stanley Weiser) by George W. Bush, depicted here as an epoch-shaping stumblebum who kept failing upward, and whose self-esteem and family issues made him who he is today.
Who is he, really? Stone, more of a "heat" guy than a "light" guy, is not the filmmaker to bore into that question. Even so, in interviews Stone has dusted off the adjective "Shakespearean" to describe his fictionalized approach to Bush and to all his recent history projects, ranging from the frantic all-star paranoia parade "JFK" (in which Stone and his screenwriters amalgamated every grassy knoll theory on the planet) and "Nixon," starring Anthony Hopkins as a collection of surface character traits that never quite added up to a character.
The Shakespearean element in "W.," I suppose, is the notion that the wastrel son of George Herbert Walker Bush started out his life much like the future Prince Hal of "Henry IV," and the world--Yale, Texas, the National Guard, the drinking, the business mishaps, the political rise--was W's Falstaff, a genially corrupting influence. Then he became born-again. Then he became president, and he responded to 9/11 by waging a pre-emptive war based on shaky intelligence, and now ... well, the end of the story, like the close of Bush's second term and the decision regarding his successor, hasn't been written.
Yet here's "W.," the story of an ingratiating "devil in a white hat," as librarian Laura Welch (Elizabeth Banks) calls him just minutes after being introduced to her future husband, played by a wily and exacting Josh Brolin. And here's the paradox: The film may be ill-timed, arguably unnecessary and no more psychologically probing than any other Stone movie. But much of it works as deft, brisk, slyly engaging docudrama.
Those dazzled by Stone's assaultively kinetic noisemakers, pictures such as "JFK" or "Any Given Sunday," will wonder what happened to the nutty firebrand of old. The film's relative restraint, visually and in the cheap-shot, screaming-lefty department, is rather remarkable. The furthest out the director ventures into the realm of fever-dream or fantasy consists of one Oval Office nightmare sequence, and a sad, effective leitmotif, depicting Bush alone in an empty stadium, listening to invisible cheering crowds.
Brolin has become a fine actor in recent years, and his performance in "W." is the one thing conservatives and liberals can agree upon. It is a tricky assignment: Go too far into caricature and impersonation, and you're reducing the man to his enemies' worst notions.
Brolin goes just far enough with certain traits to ring the bell: the little heh-heh-heh chuckle, the veiled and not-so-veiled outbursts, the mixture of sincere, unquestioning belief in a higher power and sincerely misjudged faith in, among others, the man he nicknamed "Vice" (Cheney, that is, played with surprising subtlety by Richard Dreyfuss). Brolin absorbs the surface traits into a suggestion, at least, of something unfinished or unresolved beneath the surface.
The script's back-and-forth narrative spans from 1966 to 2004. Brolin and Dreyfuss, along with such sly underplayers as Toby Jones as Karl Rove, lead the ensemble; unfortunately, not everyone follows. Some excellent performers get lost here, including Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell (the voice is way off) and Thandie Newton's weirdly stylized Condoleezza Rice, all quavering fealty and marble-mouth niceties. On the other end of the spectrum, James Cromwell can't be bothered with even the slightest vocal or physical suggestion of Bush Senior, who in "W." serves as the key to Junior's struggles.
This is the strength and the weakness of the script, and the film. Everything is channeled through this idea of callow George's inability to earn approval from his father, even when W. (in a factually squishy bit) becomes the architect of the racist Willie Horton attack ad that single-handedly puts his old man in the White House, trumping Michael Dukakis. As with any narrative feature based in fact, some parts of "W." are truer than others. As with any Stone film, the swing between truth, "truth" and fantasy is willful and wide.
When it works, though, it works because for the first time since the 1980s Stone has made a film that establishes a tone and sticks to it. Like David Hare's stage play "Stuff Happens," "W." hangs its head-shaking tragicomedy on the Iraq War and the cloudy aftermath. In the end it depicts its subject as lost, and pitiable--like Richard Nixon, but more a pawn than a dark knight.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images).
Running time: 2:09.
Opening: Oct. 17.
Starring: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush); Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush); Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush); James Cromwell (George H.W. Bush); Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney); Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld); Toby Jones (Karl Rove); Stacy Keach (Earle Hudd); Bruce McGill (George Tenet); Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice); Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell).
Directed by: Oliver Stone; written by Stanley Weiser; photographed by Phedon Papamichael; edited by Julie Monroe; music by Paul Cantelon; production design by Derek Hill; produced by Bill Block, Eric Kopeloff, Paul Hanson and Moritz Borman. A Lionsgate release.