Dir. Oliver Stone
(PG-13) ★ ★ ½
There’s one great scene in Oliver Stone’s W., a controversial biopic in theory but tame in execution: In the War Room, George W. Bush discusses plans for the Iraq War with his staff: Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfus), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), and Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris) — Karl Rove (Toby Jones) glowers ominously in the background.
The discussion moves from justifications to timetables — has to start in March, or else it gets too hot — and finally to oil — says Cheney with unsettling resolve, if the US controls the oil supply in the Middle East, they will be an invulnerable empire. We’re stunned upon the escalating realization that they’re serious; it’s like Dr. Strangelove without the irony. As played by Wright, Powell regards the room with near disbelief and delivers a stirring, sobering speech about “changing the way we do business.” Upon accepting the Secretary of State position for the Bush administration, I think he mustn’t have known what he was getting himself into. Perhaps he is the only one in the room who has seen Dr. Strangelove.
The rest of the film is an interesting but ultimately underachieving effort to give our widely reviled president the benefit of the doubt, which in itself is a novel approach, especially from such a vociferous liberal as Stone. According to his film, George W. Bush was a troubled young man who could never live up to the standard set by his disapproving father, his predecessor in the White House and namesake George Herbert Walker Bush (James Cromwell). He drank too much, couldn’t hold a job, and was always in the shadow of his brother Jeb (Jason Ritter). Eventually, he found God, found politics, and worked through his daddy issues by entering us into a catastrophic five-year campaign for the purpose of doing what his father couldn’t — or rather, wouldn’t: getting Saddam Hussein.
But Bush isn’t evil or callous. No, he has merely been the genial packaging for the ideas of his neoconservative advisors, whose slash-and-burn approach to foreign policy sounds a lot better through the aw-shucks patois of good ol’ Dubya. It all comes down to who the voters want to have a beer with, explains Karl Rove, and I think even Rove would agree that no one would want to have a beer with him.
It’s an intriguing hypothesis. Unfortunately, Stone’s film, written by Stanley Weiser, is a thin analysis of a complicated man and an infinitely confounding presidency. Thousands of pages and hours of footage and analysis have been devoted to the subject in the last eight years, to the point where even the First Dog ought to have a biography in the works. W. reduces it to two hours, and boils it down so drastically that all the meat has been stripped from the bone. What’s left is a film that skips along the surface without diving into the deeper waters. We get the requisite scenes — his most famous gaffes, a meeting about “advanced interrogation,” embarrassment over the lack of WMDs, and of course the infamous pretzel — but nothing substantial. For the real meat and potatoes, you’re better off renting No End in Sight or Taxi to the Dark Side, or watching The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
The scenes of Bush’s youth are more enlightening, but if the subject weren’t the leader of the free world, would this material be worthy of our consideration? Subtract the name Bush and the story is a conventional one: Spoiled rich kid does poorly in school, spends an unsettled youth bouncing between ideas of who he is supposed to be, rebels against his parents, and becomes an alcoholic before finally settling down with a good woman and going into the family business.
The screenplay includes such familiar scenes as the delinquent son returning home after a bender to tell his father he doesn’t want to go to business school, and the son questioning why his dad is more supportive of his brother’s ambitions. At one point, a reporter asks Bush what his place in history will be; if this overly reductive film is any indication, the answer will be, “Less than meets the eye.”
The film is distinguished by its performances, from an impressive ensemble that could have taken a richer screenplay and run with it. Brolin anchors the film, capturing the Texas swagger and roguish charm that makes Bush such a polarizing figure, along with shades of sincerity, trepidation, and self-doubt that we don’t see in his public persona, but which Stone envisions here. As the women in his life, Elizabeth Banks gives a sly edge to his prim wife Laura, and conversely Ellen Burstyn frays the edges of Barbara Bush, revealing a headstrong battleaxe of a mother.
This time around, Stone’s usual stylistic bombast is limited to a few dream sequences and pointed insert shots — a close-up of a belt buckle with a Christian cross comes as Bush decides to run for President. In a recurring motif, Bush is in the outfield of Rangers Ballpark waiting to make a heroic catch. In one of the dreams the ball doesn’t come. Stone leaves us similarly hanging, announcing “The End” although the story seems incomplete. I think he has made his film prematurely. Bush still has two months until he moves out of White House, at which point he might reach the realization that the ball has already come to the outfield, and he dropped it.