It is necessary for me to start by saying that I have never been a fan of Oliver Stone's films. Part of filmmaking, in my opinion, a necessary part of every film, is to, in some way; entertain the people watching the film. Many films also educate, inform, incite, but entertainment needs to be a part of the equation of any successful film. Too often, Stone is so intent on getting his message across, he begins to beat the viewer over the head with these ideas. Subtlety is lost. When the film becomes a lecture, it is no longer entertaining. So I often avoid Stone's films or catch them on DVD.
But I should also say I am a very liberal Democrat, which is why I went to see "W". The liberal Democrat in me was stronger than my distaste for Stone's films.
But "W" is not a good film. Apparently, Stone was so intent on getting the film into theaters before the election, he fast-tracked the project, rushing every aspect of production. And it quite frankly shows on the screen. When I exited the theater after the screening, my companion and I both agreed the film was on a par with a television movie. Something you might see on Lifetime Television.
Why was Stone so intent on getting the film into theaters before the election? What effect did he hope it would have? Bush isn't up for reelection. I don't get it.
But to have any kind of power, the film has to show us something new. Something we didn't already know. Something the average viewer couldn't have already gleamed from a mixture of skits on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" or "Saturday Night Live" or through various exposes in magazines like "Vanity Fair".
And "W" doesn't tell us anything new. The "big" revelation the film seems intent on beating us over the head with is little more interesting than your average TV movie. "W" simply dies on screen. Which is a shame. Because as much as I dislike Stone's films, I dislike the work of our current president even more and would have loved to see a truly great, insightful look at everything that went wrong with his presidency.
A far better expose of the 43rd President continues to lie in Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11". Check that out instead. Moore delves into the various political and business connections of the Bush family and their political co-horts, connecting the dots for us to see.
That said, there is one reason to watch "W", maybe when it appears on DVD or cable (Lifetime?). And that one reason is Josh Brolin's portrayal of Bush 43. From the moment Brolin appears on screen, he seems to be channeling something deep, very deep, to make this character interesting and multi-faceted. Perhaps more interesting and multi-faceted than he has a right to be based on the writing and directing.
We initially meet W as he leads a meeting of his senior staff at the White House, trying to come up with the "Axis of Evil" speech. Then, through a series of flashbacks, we see a few moments in W's early life; presumably to give us an idea of what led to this man becoming President. He gets hazed at Yale, he gets bailed out of jail by 'Poppy' (James Cromwell) and he quickly gives up on a job on an oil rig. Poppy, who is running for the Senate, doesn't know what to do with the boy, especially since Jeb is going to graduate with honors. And you get a clue about Stone's theory about how W became the President. It's a weak theory, especially as portrayed in the film, which is part of the significant problem with "W". The flashbacks seem particularly rushed, even unfocused. Is Stone's theory about this man really that superficial?
Then one fateful night, Poppy asks W to run his campaign for President. Bush 43 comes up with the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis. And the rest is history.
Brolin does a good job of portraying Bush and often walks a fine line, tottering between caricature and an actual attempt at creating a meaningful performance. There are moments when Bush seems in charge and other moments when he seems like a fool, ripe for leading by Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss). It is an interesting, intelligent performance for a man I don't think necessarily deserves such treatment.
The rest of the cast is much more problematic. Thandie Newton ("Mission: Impossible 2", "Beloved"), who plays Condoleezza Rice is probably the most successful at recreating the actual person, copying her speech pattern and mannerisms. But the performance lacks any bite or insight into who Rice is. The portrayal makes her seem far too inconsequential and powerless. Richard Dreyfuss manages to grit his teeth once or twice, ala Jon Stewart's impression of Cheney as The Penguin, but that's about it. The performance also lacks any bite or insight. Jeffrey Wright plays Colin Powell. Stone seems especially kind to Powell, giving his character the benefit of hindsight. In virtually every one of his scenes, Wright plays Powell as repentant or against the rest of the group. A brief, very brief scene shows Powell going along with Bush 41 and Cheney during the first Gulf War. As we all know, hindsight is 20/20 and Powell shouldn't be let off so easily simply because he now regrets his decisions. Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, is clearly despised by Stone. Scott Glenn's portrayal only serves to make the former Secretary of Defense seem like a complete idiot. At one point, while everyone else is contemplating the consequences of their actions, Stone focuses on Rumsfeld stuffing his face with a huge fork of pie, the Secretary seemingly oblivious to anything but the sweet dessert.
Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush and seems suitably supportive throughout. Moments of disagreement and/ or criticism seem to have been few and far between in this Bush household. She merely frowns when W proves he has a drinking problem (one or two many times I might add). She merely frowns when W accepts a job from his father to lead his campaign for President, ensuring they will have to relocate to Washington. She frowns a lot, but doesn't look or act like the real Laura Bush.
Ellen Burstyn is even more problematic. She has the emblematic white hair of Barbara Bush, but has very few scenes and only pops up occasionally to show how strong willed she is. I think there was an attempt to paint her as rather crude; she is seen swearing in a few scenes, but this doesn't really come across that well.
James Cromwell is the most successful member of the supporting cast. As Poppy Bush, he manages to convey Bush 41's unique and distinctive speech patterns on a few occasions. And he conveys 41's broken heart when he loses his re-election bid. It is an interesting performance and perhaps the most completely realized characterization after the work of Brolin.
But there is an attempt to portray their bond as a mythic father-son relationship and this aspect of the story is not successful. There are more than a few references to W trying to do things to please his father, seeking his dad's approval. But he never receives it. Which is apparently what drove W to become President. Yawn. What drove him to invade Iraq? To finish the job his dad started and in the process making Poppy proud. Yawn.
This argument may be true, but it is so clichéd and 'been there, done that' over and over again that we can't really care if this is the reason W is what he is. To make this really powerful, we would probably have to see Bush 41 do something completely egregious or sickening, something to make him seem mean, powerful or Machiavellian. None of this happens. He simply disapproves. And he has a lot to disapprove of. But it doesn't make this aspect of their relationship a powerful thing to watch.
"W" is also a poorly conceived film. Opening with a meeting in the Oval Office to work out the details of the Axis of Evil speech, the narrative shuttles back to W's college days and moves back and forth quickly. Generally, when a film begins to incorporate flashbacks, they are provided to help illustrate something happening in the current day. The flashbacks in "W" attempt to show us some of Bush's early activities (he basically got drunk a lot, which led to him becoming a Born Again Christian). But what created the idea of an "Axis of Evil"? In one scene, we see W say he is going to go after Sadam because he tried to 'kill my daddy'. And we see Bush 41 say why he calls Sadam Sah-dam. But these moments just don't connect. Or provide enough of an impetus for Bush 43's actions or motivations
Because of the subject matter, I wish Stone had spent some more time fine tuning the screenplay before filming. And I wish he had spent some more time in the editing room, constructing a well-made, cohesive making a cohesive argument about why W is the way he is. Instead, because he rushed to get the film into multiplexes before the election, we have the equivalent of a television movie.
A basic cable television movie.