Oliver Stone's better when he's pissing people off. Salvador, Talk Radio, JFK and Nixon bit down hard. Natural Born Killers was a full-on assault to steal A Clockwork Orange's cinematic thunder. So, why'd Stone have to go all respectable on us? His last film, World Trade Center, was a meat-and-potatoes melodrama that challenged no one. Despite the amusing trailers that suggest it's a scathing portrait of an idiot-in-chief, W actually manages to be a whole lot less confrontational. Liberals seeking catharsis will be sorely disappointed.
In an effort to present a restrained, even-handed biopic about George W. Bush, Stone neutered his rushed-to-the-screen-in-time-for-the-elections film of all things it needs: passion, insight, balls and, most importantly, relevance. It's uncertain if W was made too late or, more likely, too soon, but this movie does what everyone in George Junior's life has always done: let him off easy.
By any yardstick, our soon-to-leave-office leader has been an unmitigated disaster. The historical notices are pouring in and W's probably the worst president in American history. How then does Stone neglect to include his Air National Guard years (or all of Vietnam, for that matter), the 2000 election fight, the 9/11 attacks, the failures during Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 election, or even Terry Schiavo's right-to-die battle? It's inconceivable that W's private response to the World Trade Center attacks wouldn't be seen as important enough to be included. You don't have to pop in every milestone in Bush's biography of failure to tell his story, but, amazingly, Stone misses the ones that matter.
Except, of course, the war in Iraq — which provides the film with a few great examples of callow arrogance but feels too familiar. Interrupted by entertaining re-creations of W's ne'er-do-well past, the movie's numerous press conference scenes and war room discussions play like rehashes of recent history or details from political insider accounts.
Part of the problem is screenwriter Stanley Weiser's decision to end the film before W's second term begins. To meet the upcoming presidential election deadline, the choice makes sense but dramatically it's unsupportable, robbing the film of any meaningful conclusion. It's a blatant triumph of commerce over art. Sure, if Stone had focused the story on specific character-defining moments to make some deeper point about Bush's evolution, the approach could be justified. Unfortunately, the film really has no point. It's a sketchy biography filled with simplistic Freudian psychology, a few subtly satirical flourishes and an overreliance on knowledge of current history. Viewed 50 years from now and knowing little of his presidency, it would be hard to contextualize W in any meaningful way.
While Stone does a decent job of making it clear that Bush II has been a lifelong screw-up, he doesn't credibly examine his life-changing moments or offer any perspective. Why did Bush so heartily embrace conservatism, Christianity and neo-con philosophies? The movie provides only the shallowest of reasons. Instead it keeps things breezy and superficial, entertaining while it goes along but never challenging the characters or confronting the fact the United States elected someone who was clearly unprepared for the job of president. Stone's sole contribution to this thin treatment is that Dubya had serious daddy issues. Well, don't we all. Better to have looked at W's beef with mommy dearest, as several biographies have hinted at. At least we might have had some juicy oedipal subtext.
The major figures in George's life are similarly threadbare. Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is a supportive cipher and Bush's siblings are mostly invisible. His cabinet is penciled in with narrowly defined personalities: Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) is conniving, Condi (Thandie Newton) is a shallow enabler, Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is tormented, Rumsfeld (Scott Glen) is crazy, and Rove (Toby Jones) barely registers. Weirder still is Stone's depiction of Bush Senior (James Cromwell) as the stern but empathetic father figure with too big a shadow. It's a remarkably simplistic rendering of a man whose political history and aspirations run dark and deep.
Despite these shortcomings, the cast is a very good at evoking their real-world counterparts. But it's Josh Brolin as W who will end up on the Oscar shortlist. Coming off his career-defining role in No Country for Old Men, Brolin demonstrates his range by sidestepping simple mimicry of Bush's mannerisms to create a flesh-and-blood character. You could quibble that he misses W's entitled sense of smugness, but everything else's right and true. It's a terrific performance that holds the disjointed picture together.
There's a wonderful moment in W where Bush is leading his advisers through the backfields of his ranch. After some clever war planning badinage, the gaggle realizes they are lost. In the sweltering heat, dressed in dark suits, they bumble along, searching for the way back. It's a brilliant metaphor for Bush's tenure as president. And for the movie itself. Without thematic heft, satiric bite or historical scope, Stone's film is as off-course as the man he's chronicling.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.