Oliver Stone’s unusual and inescapably interesting “W.” feels like a rough draft of a film it might behoove him to remake in 10 or 15 years. The director’s third feature to hinge on a modern-era presidency, after “JFK” and “Nixon,” offers a clear and plausible take on the current chief executive’s psychological makeup and, considering Stone’s reputation and Bush’s vast unpopularity, a relatively even-handed, restrained treatment of recent politics. For a film that could have been either a scorching satire or an outright tragedy, “W.” is, if anything, overly conventional, especially stylistically. The picture possesses dramatic and entertainment value, but beyond serious filmgoers curious about how Stone deals with all this president’s men and women, it’s questionable how wide a public will pony up to immerse itself in a story that still lacks an ending.
Heavily researched but made very quickly — pic went before the cameras in May and is being rushed into release before the November election — “W.” has the benefit of filmmaking energy and good performances where they count, beginning with Josh Brolin’s arresting turn in the leading role. One can’t say Brolin is George W. Bush — the real one is still all too noticeably with us — but the actor offers a more than reasonable physical approximation and an interpretation that’s convincingly boisterous and determined. Aspects of the man unknown to the public are put forward that may or may not be true but are sufficiently believable to make one go with them in a movie.
Opening with a post-9/11 cabinet meeting in the Oval Office in which the phrase “axis of evil” was concocted, then jumping back in time to begin a procession of key events in the life of a privileged party boy with something to prove, Stone and his “Wall Street” scenarist Stanley Weiser position the film, above all, as a father-son story. Long uncertain what his role in life is meant to be, the young George W. is severely chastised by his patrician father for his wayward behavior — “What do you think you are, a Kennedy?,” blares George Sr. (James Cromwell) after one of his son’s drunken escapades — but is nonetheless always let off the hook and given another chance by his father, who lacks the cojones to truly leave W. to his own devices and, later, to pursue Saddam Hussein to Baghdad in the 1991 Gulf War.
As the film continues to bounce back and forth between the Iraq-dominated presidency and George W.’s unlikely transformation from a life as a ne’er-do-well rich kid to one of born-again Christianity, sobriety, ambition and resolve, it occasionally delivers intimations of looming tragedy, or at least of history that didn’t have to unfold as it did. But the film is unable to achieve more than a sort of engaging pop-history pageant and amateur, if not inapt, psychological evaluation, due to the unavoidable lack of perspective and a final act that has yet to be written. When the Texas flashbacks finally catch up with the Washington, D.C., framing device, the film suddenly becomes a half-documentary about the Iraq war, changing the tone as well as the up-close-and-personal feel.
The younger Bush is portrayed in lively fashion, much as one has always heard him described. First glimpsed in a metal tub being hazed for Yale frathouse membership, Dubya drinks hard, consorts with floozies, can’t hold a job, gets into Harvard Business School only thanks to Dad and loses a run for Congress in Texas, as he’s portrayed by his down-home opponent as “a carpetbagger from Connecticut”; afterward, in a memorable phrase, W. promises, “There’s no way I’ll ever be out-Texased or out-Christianed again.” He’s also fortunate early on to meet the right woman, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), a smart lady who readily recognizes his foibles but supports him step by step.
After years of aimlessness, the born-again moment arrives in the mid-’80s, when W. trades the bottle for Jesus. A few years later, when he sets his sights on the popular Ann Richards’ job, Ellen Burstyn, playing Barbara Bush, gets perhaps the film’s biggest laugh when, confronted with her son’s plans, she yelps, “Governor of Texas? You must be joking!” Dad tries to talk him into waiting four years, until 1998, so Jeb (Jason Ritter) can lock up the Florida job first, but by now, W. is his own man, unwilling to follow his father’s orders or play second fiddle to his better-liked brother.
Stone and Weiser make no attempt to cover historical bases; major episodes, including political campaigns, business alliances and elections, are completely omitted. Most scenes are devoted to illuminating particular aspects of George W. — examined in pithy interludes are his recklessness, people skills, insecurities, reliance upon Laura, impatience, belief that good will prevail and unwillingness to deviate once he’s made up his mind. Stone stands back as if to strenuously avoid the appearance of judging his subject even as he pigeonholes him psychologically.
In the contemporary White House passages, however, it is not as easy to entirely avoid commentary and caricature. Many individual scenes are engrossing: a lunch with Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) in which the vice president maneuvers to get his way on the treatment of prisoners but is abruptly told by his boss to “keep your ego in check”; the many attempts by Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) to argue for a prudent course on Iraq, all of which are met with clucking disdain from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn); George Sr.’s reluctance to declare himself “born again” to shore up his support among “the base”; and Cheney’s chilling answer to the question of what the exit strategy from Iraq will be: — “There is no exit. We stay.”
Docu-like feel of the latter stretch is emphasized by the sudden use of extensive real footage of Iraq, the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier stunt and a Bush speech before the joint Houses of Congress, with the actors blended in with actual politicos. Pic thus enters TV territory, to its detriment, and Stone has no choice but to end on an ambiguously fanciful note that can mean anything you want it to mean.
For the most part, Stone and his actors meet the basic requirements of pulling off this quick-draw portrait of still-evolving history, but one late sequence — of Georges Sr. and Jr. preparing to duke it out in a bare Oval Office — suggests the sort of stylistic imagination and audacious poetic flight that would have given the film some real heft. No visual correlatives or subjective projections of mood or attitude are offered, as they have been in past Stone films. Dominating are borderline distorted closeups, especially of Brolin, along with shadowy lighting and generally lackluster lensing. Some of the song choices are downright sophomoric in their too-obvious irony.
Along with Brolin, top performances/impersonations are provided by Banks, whose Laura Bush goes a long way toward clarifying the close marital bond; Cromwell, who may not be a dead ringer for George H. W. Bush but delivers the full intended force of his character in several key scenes; Toby Jones as the ever-present Karl Rove; and, despite hints at editorializing, Dreyfuss, who may only present a caricature of Cheney but seems so physically and attitudinally on the money that he’s instantly recognizable and acceptable.
Rather more iffy are Glenn as Rumsfeld, Thandie Newton as Condi Rice and Burstyn as Barbara; these roles are brief, so either the actors must register quickly as right or they don’t. Great actor that he is, Wright just doesn’t possess the same physical bearing as Powell. Stacy Keach, as the preacher who helps lead W. through his religious conversion, and Bruce McGill, as CIA director George Tenet, do well in some intense scenes.
Shot mostly in and around Shreveport, La., pic boasts solid, if not elaborate, production values.