In Oliver Stone's limp biopic W., George Bush is a washout as a student and a president, and brilliant as a frat boy. Other pledges during rush week cower as upperclassmen "torture" them. W., under duress, recites the names of everyone in the fraternity, nicknames included. Later, when Vice President Dick Cheney sells him on enhanced interrogation techniques, W. reasons that they sound no worse than what he went through at Yale.
Although Stone has gone out of his way to say that he has treated Bush as a figure to be understood, not simply pilloried, the movie plays like a dunk-the-clown game at a carnival. Through intent or ineptitude, he sets up the Bush family and administrations as caricatures. Then he puts them through a fond recounting of W.'s greatest flops, climaxing with his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I watched a few minutes of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show this week and heard her tell the director that the film was a deep and complicated character study. Even Stone appeared uncomfortable with that description, saying he thought Bush was profoundly narrow-minded and provincial. If a woman as bright as Maddow can take W. too seriously, partisanship has gotten way out of hand.
Although it hops among several different time periods in a pseudo-modern way, W. is at heart an old-fashioned train wreck. Its shortcomings are remarkably similar to those of its major characters. Near the beginning, Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) proclaims that he doesn't do "nuance." Neither, alas, does Stone. He sets his movie's tone with an early scene of a working White House lunch: Bush (Josh Brolin) eats a cold-cut sandwich with Cheetos and talks with his mouth full as Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) lays out Bush's complete war and foreign policy agendas.
In this movie, Stone's idea of irony is to lay the theme from the old Robin Hood TV show on the soundtrack as Bush fantasizes about ridding the world of evil. (As all baby boomers know, it went, "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen / Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men / Feared by the bad, loved by the good / Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.")
Near the end, Bush complains of the "psychobabble" used to analyze him in the press. He can add W. to the babble. The film spends its intellectual and creative capital portraying George as the family black sheep chafing under the shadow of George Sr. The father's preference for George's younger brother Jeb drives W. to become a political winner. When he does ascend to the presidency, his desires to outdo his dad as a war leader and avenge the patriarch's honor lead him to take on Saddam Hussein.
Stanley Weiser's script is like a bunch of Maureen Dowd's four-year-old "Oedipus Bush" columns stitched together. I doubt it would work even if Weiser and Stone had brought the favorite son to the forefront and found a latter-day Dick and Tommy Smothers to play Jeb and George in a "dad always liked you best" routine. Although the filmmakers treat George Bush's born-again experience as sincere, they also imply that for a man like W., Jesus may supply the ultimate father-son fantasy.
It's occasionally amusing to see famous anecdotes from Bush lore acted out, such as the first meeting of Laura and George at a friend's barbecue. He asks what she does, and she replies, "I read, I smoke and I admire." (She also admits she's a Democrat who supports Eugene McCarthy.) The freshest scenes come from Bush's unsuccessful run for a West Texas congressional seat against a wily rural politician, Kent Hance, who portrays W. as an out-of-touch elitist. "I'll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again," the loser vows. (In the notorious Kitty Kelley book on the Bush dynasty, The Family, she quotes Bush saying that Hance "out-countried" him.)
In the end, though, all W. offers is the uneven pleasure of first-rate actors impersonating people they don't respect. Dreyfuss, so shrewd and compelling as Alexander Haig in The Day Reagan Was Shot, sets the pitch for this ensemble by playing Cheney with hunched shoulders and loathsome certitude; if Bush is the decider, Cheney is the dominator. Thandie Newton plays Condoleezza Rice as a marionette without strings, complete with a voice so rickety it seems to emanate from a ventriloquist somewhere behind her. She's either the worst impersonator or the one who best sums up Stone's view of the Bush inner circle as hollow men - and women. Elizabeth Banks brings a whiff of down-home sensuality to Laura, but like Jeffrey Wright's sage yet gutless Colin Powell, she can't square the independent character we meet at the beginning with the loyalist she becomes at the end.
James Cromwell strives to bring stature to George Sr., but he can't overcome the bald dialogue and turgid dramaturgy that establish him and Barbara (an over-the-top Ellen Burstyn) as clueless parents who mistake a hoity-toity form of dysfunction for dignity. Surprisingly, British actor Toby Jones fares best as Karl Rove. Although Jones is diminutive compared to the real man, he has a surreal cerebral quality - not of thought, but of calculation - that makes it seem he really is "Bush's brain."
Most of the time, Brolin as W. captures the bumptious swagger of the man rather than his goofiness or stubbornness, or the charm that warmed the press corps during his 2000 run to the White House. Like Tina Fey as Sarah Palin (though not in the same league), he does at times achieve an eerie, italicized replica of the real thing. He's at his peak re-creating moments straight out of the historical record, such as Bush's inability at a news conference to come up with a mistake he made since Sept. 11, 2001.
Elsewhere, Brolin tries too hard to depict W. as a family rebel who finds his identity as an evangelical Christian and his cause in a global war on evil. Brolin's own mental energy gets in the way. When John Travolta portrayed the Bill Clinton character in Primary Colors, he seemed to be playing above his intellect. In W., Brolin seems to be playing below his.
(Lionsgate) Starring Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images. Time 129 minutes.
online Watch a preview and see more photos from W. at baltimoresun.com/movies