'W.': Mission Not Accomplished

This biopic chronicles the life and controversial presidency of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), featuring Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney. Video by Lionsgate
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

"W.," the title of Oliver Stone's new biopic of President Bush, most obviously refers to the subject's middle initial and frequent nickname, but it could just as easily stand for "Why?"

Why this movie -- a rushed, wildly uneven, tonally jumbled caricature -- and why now? Why, when Americans and citizens around the globe are still coming to terms with the implications of so many Bush policies, would they want to pay money at the box office to see what amounts to an extended "Saturday Night Live" skit?

Why, when so many people are familiar with the vignettes that drive the episodic narrative of "W." -- the Time Bush Choked on a Pretzel, the Time Bush Quit Drinking After a Brutal Hangover, the Time Bush Invaded Iraq -- would they want to see it all reenacted again, albeit through Stone's occasionally stingingly satirical lens?

As Bush himself might say, the answers to those questions are between you and your God. And maybe heaven only knows whether "W." will, in the fullness of time, acquire the Shakespearean heft and meaning that Stone is clearly aiming for, that is, when he's not aiming for Kubrickian absurdism or movie-of-the-week banality. Reportedly, Stone shot and edited "W." quickly so that it could be released before the Nov. 4 presidential election; the rush job shows in a movie that plays like a mishmash of narrative priorities and aesthetic choices. In "Nixon," Stone drilled down into his subject's dark psyche to limn a psychologically complex and even whisperingly sympathetic portrait of a driven, confounding man. Here, the filmmaker is all over the place, portraying Bush as a superficial party animal, super-compulsive addictive personality and, above all, rich kid with daddy issues.

Indeed, the through line of "W." is the recurring Oedipal struggle between Bush "Junior" (played in a squinty-eyed, set-jawed impersonation by Josh Brolin) and his far more accomplished father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell). From bailing his kid out of jail when young George gets arrested for a college prank after a Yale football game to setting him up in a series of jobs that don't pan out, the old man never hesitates to let his son know that, especially compared with brother Jeb, he's been an enormous disappointment to the family. "Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?" Poppy barks after yet another set-to about his drinking and womanizing.

Like so much of "W.," these encounters are told in flashback. We witness the fateful day when George first met Laura (Elizabeth Banks in a warm, sympathetic performance), the pivotal birthday when he got sober and, shortly thereafter, became born-again; his first failed political campaign running for state office in Texas; his tutelage under political adviser Karl Rove (Toby Jones).

But the film is nominally set during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Bush's decision to go to war comes to pass in a series of meetings, by turns sinister and dryly amusing, with his war cabinet and Vice President Cheney.

Played by Richard Dreyfuss with blessedly few tics, Cheney emerges in "W." as a quietly diabolical éminence grise, the subtle puppeteer who lets the ventriloquist's dummy think he's in charge while the real boss pulls the strings. It's a glib, facile portrayal of what is doubtlessly a far more complicated relationship. What's more, it trivializes a president who, both supporters and critics agree, is dumb like a fox. Even more irritating are the portrayals of Bush's war cabinet (Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld), which continually take viewers out of the movie and into dated "SNL" territory. Newton is particularly distracting in a depiction of a primly clueless Rice that is both sophomoric and cruel.

What might be the finest scene in "W." comes late in the picture, when it's become clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and arms inspector David Kay (Tom Kemp) falls on his sword while Bush's advisers blithely eat huge pieces of pecan pie; it's a tableau worthy of Stanley Kubrick in its depiction of blinkered ambition and moral arrogance.

Had "W." been able to sustain such sharply ironic focus, it might have been a timely and historically useful satire on a par with Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." Instead, it's a scattershot attempt at stylized portraiture that plays like a half-baked editorial cartoon.

Which raises yet another "W" question: What has "W." given us to better understand the person who will surely go down in history, if not as America's best or worst president, as his era's most consequential? We learn, finally, that George W. Bush wants to symbolically kill his father, possesses the attention span of a gnat, has a tendency to stress-eat and likes the musical "Cats" (the biggest combination laugh-and-groan line at a recent screening).

Somehow, by simultaneously mythologizing and miniaturizing Bush, Stone has lost sight of the man in full. And the audience, regardless of partisan predisposition, is the poorer for it. Trotting out such greatest Bushisms as "misunderstimate" and "in history we'll all be dead," Stone dutifully hits on all the sound bites that have made Bush's opponents grind their teeth in disbelief. But at a time when 9/11, Katrina, two wars, an economic meltdown, unprecedented constitutional challenges and equally breathtaking concentrations of executive power have transpired under one administration, asking us to wince at the old chestnut "Is our children learning?" fatally loses sight of how high the stakes have been, and still are.

To return to the initial question: Why would we want to see the movie when we're still in the movie -- and when it looks like we'll be in it long after its protagonist has made his exit?

W. (129 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity, including sexual references, some alcohol abuse and brief disturbing war images.

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