W. isn’t the first warts and all presidential biography to hit ever the big screen. In fact, it isn’t even the first Oliver Stone directed warts and all White House portrait to enter theatres. Nor is it the first time George W. Bush has been given the Hollywood treatment—among others Timothy Bottoms played him on the sit-com That’s My Bush and in 2006 British director Gabriel Range stirred things up with Death of a President about the fictional assassination of Bush—but it is the first time Stone has immortalized a sitting president.
Josh Brolin plays Bush from his frat days at Yale through to his time as a mostly unemployed good old boy, through to becoming the born-again governor of Texas to answering a call from God to run for President. Along the way the character is arrested and bailed out by his powerful Dad, signs up for AA, gets married, starts wars and uses lots of Bushisms like “misunderestimate.”
It’s a jam packed life, ripe for a full-on biographical treatment, but it is also a well documented one. As audiences we all know the story. We’ve seen it on television, read about it in the dozens of books written about the man and his presidency, so Stone’s job was to come up with new material, or at least a new spin on old material to keep the story compelling. Unfortunately as far as bios go it is same-old. Stone doesn’t dredge up much new material, and save for a few scenes deep inside the White House’s war rooms, there isn’t much here that will come as a surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Bush and his troubled presidency.
Luckily for Stone he has a top flight cast of actors breathing life into characters that are most frequently seen standing behind a White House podium giving carefully prepared answers to a scrum of reporters. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, General Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld all make appearances. Richard Dreyfuss nails the commonly held idea of Cheney as puppet master, the White House master of Doublethink and Newspeak. Toby Jones, a British actor best known for voicing Dobby, the house-elf, in the Harry Potter films plays power architect, or “Bush’s Brain,” as he’s sometimes called, Karl Rove as a ruthless political animal, convinced of both his moral superiority and his king-making ability. Thandie Newton, using a nasal, flat voice brings out the humor of the toadying Condoleeza Rice while Jeffrey Wright and Scott Glenn seem to be channeling Powel and Rumsfeld respectively.
Leading the cast is Brolin who, despite a career downturn that spanned most of the 1990s, has been moving from strength to strength of late starring in movies like No Country for Old Men and upcoming Milk with Sean Penn. Here as Bush he nails the president’s beady-eyed squint, the malapropisms—he’s the decider!—and the over confidence. It’s a remarkable performance that goes well beyond mimicry; at once filled with swagger but plagued by self-doubt. In Brolin’s hands George “don’t call me Jr.” Bush is portrayed as a simple man so determined to prove his mettle—to his father as much as the country—that he makes some dubious decisions in an attempt to appear decisive and powerful.
It’s a showy performance, but one that doesn’t stoop to parody. Bush is a larger than life character and Brolin’s take on him is big and brassy. It’s also almost guaranteed to be nominated for Best Actor come awards time.
So Stone has delivered an unexpectedly even handed portrait of one of the most polarizing figures of recent history. I’m pleased was able to put aside partisan politics but my major complaint of the film, aside from some obvious omissions—there isn’t a hanging chad in sight—is that it isn’t tough enough. Stone, in an attempt to be empathetic has played it too safe with the story of America’s worst president ever. Perhaps it would have been a different movie had he waited ten or fifteen years to make it, but as it is W. feels overly restrained and straightforward.
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