Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! Normally I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. This time, out of laziness more than anything else, I’m offering a straight-up review. I think this one warrants a deviation from the norm. After all, movies like this don’t come around often.
Oliver Stone’s W. is no hatchet job. Too often the director has the subtlety of a sledge hammer, but with this fascinating movie, he’s thoughtful and curious. I think his approach is right. He takes it as a given that President Bush led our country astray, devastating our country’s constitution and moral authority. With his sharp screenwriter, Stone tries to answer a simple question: what shaped our President?
W. takes an episodic approach. Stone does not chronicle Bush’s life, and instead provides the development of his personality. The scenes are split between his wild early days and the first years of his administration. As a young man, Dubya (Josh Brolin) is a familiar archetype – the spoiled inebriate who resents his family’s burden. His father (James Cromwell) makes no secret that he prefers Jeb. Eventually Dubya meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), a demure woman who functions more as a sounding board than a wife. After he quits drinking and finds God, his political career begins to take off.
The conclusion Stone draws is terrifying. Our president does not consider the consequences of his decisions. Ever. Sometimes his flaw works in his favor – when he quits drinking is an example. But often his certainty leads to disaster. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), depicted as supremely evil, uses Bush’s flaw as a means to achieve his ends. We watch Dubya and his advisers discuss whether to invade Iraq, and Cheney’s wants nothing less than control of the planet. I’m not exaggerating. Others like Rice (Thandie Newton) and Powell (Jeffrey Wright), are in awe of Dubya’s vapidity. Powell tries to be the voice of reason, but soon falls lock-step with the administration’s policy.
Stone’s style is understated compared to his earlier efforts, giving the audience an opportunity to regard the performances. Brolin does not impersonate but embodies. He’s the key to the movie’s success. Yes, Dubya is a dim man who will never fully understand the havoc he wrought, but Brolin almost makes him sympathetic. Of the supporting performances, Dreyfus is memorable/loathsome as Cheney. The biggest surprise, however, comes from Thandie Newton. Like Rice, Newton’s voice made my skin crawl. Cromwell wisely avoids doing an impression of former President Bush, and instead makes him a distant, intelligent man whose constant disapproval is Dubya’s biggest influence.
W’s final twenty minutes lose steam, but that does not taint the overall impression. This is a good movie that plays fair. George W. Bush reflects the values of those who have his year – Rove’s resolute need for victory, Cheney’s malevolent foreign policy. In the hands of relatively more decent people, perhaps Dubya’s presidency would not have been such been, as my friend Ryan put it, the clusterfuck to end all clusterfucks. If nothing else, W. provides compelling reasons why our next president needs intellectual vigor.