Review: 'W.'

Rushed out before Election Day, Oliver Stone's biographical take on the president offers no new insight into George W.

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    Frat boy president: W, portrayed by Josh Brolin, is conceived in Stone’s movie as a roustabout jerk in his early days who has a fraught relationship with his father.
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Oliver Stone's "W." is, I suppose, the third in a trilogy of the director's presidential movies alongside "JFK" and "Nixon." "JFK" taught a generation of young people that LBJ and a consortium of renegade gay anti-communists and the tooth fairy were responsible for Kennedy's assassination, and "Nixon" reminded the world that Nixon was, well, Nixon.

In order to come in before Election Day, Stone completed "W." – which is somewhere between a straight-laced biography of George W. Bush and a "Saturday Night Live" sketch – in a rapid-fire 46 days. Did he really think that this film, with its cloddish dramaturgy and inch-deep analysis of the Bush mystique, would affect the outcome of the presidential race? With Stone, the difference between social crusading and grandstanding is illusory.

Supposedly based on extensive research, "W." offers up not a single new insight into Bush or his presidency. The film fails even as a piece of agitprop pamphleteering. It's too sane to do justice to the surreality of the Bush years and too loopy to engage with those years on all but the most cartoonish levels. (Amazingly, the film doesn't even deal with debacles like Katrina.) Essentially Stone's take on Bush is that he was a spoiled frat boy who failed all the way up to the presidency. A cross between L'il Abner and the dauphin, he goes from being a roustabout jerk to a born-again jerk.

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Stone piles on the Oedipal baggage: George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), aka "Poppy," is serially disappointed in his heavy-drinking black-sheep son. (In the film's best laugh line, he tells junior, "Who do you think you are – a Kennedy?") W, in turn, lives to shine in his father's eyes – take that, Saddam! – and he also aches to prove he's better than the old man. Stone wants us to think that if only Poppy had loved his son more, we wouldn't have had this good ol' doofus for president. W could have been commissioner of baseball instead.

Stone cuts back and forth between Bush's White House years, which are mostly rendered as a series of high-level cabinet sessions, and his antics en route to the presidency. We are led to believe throughout that Bush is a stupid man. Haven't the past eight years taught Stone anything? It can be convincingly argued that Bush succeeded in winning elections precisely because he and his cronies encouraged people to underestimate him. Stone is buying into the mind-set that Bush cultivated.

Stylistically, "W." is all over the map. Straight drama alternates with flat-out spoofs. This would be fine if somehow the vision thing cohered, but there's no game plan here beyond the desire to throw everything into the pot and hope it comes out right. The audience I saw the film with clearly wanted it to be a satirical jape, but, compared with any old garden-variety "SNL" or "Daily Show" or "Colbert Report" sketch, "W." is very mild indeed. Some very good actors, including Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), and Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), are made to look foolish as they gamely attempt to work up their celebrity impersonations.

Perhaps Stone believed that the only way you can make sense of the George W. Bush debacle is by presenting it as a goof – a Freudian cartoon. But if that's the case, he erred on the side of caution. "W." would have been far better if Stone had let out all the stops and turned it into a full-blown fantasia. It's been reported that he deleted such scenes as Bush flying over Baghdad on a magic carpet as bombs drop. I would have much preferred to see something like this instead of scenes like Bush gagging on a pretzel or announcing that he is willing to sacrifice for his country in time of war by giving up sweet-potato pie. (True story?)

Stone may think he's made a movie about the toxicity of the Bush presidency, but what we have instead is a cautionary tale of a decidedly lower order. As far as I can make out, the real message of "W." is: Don't vote for anybody who talks with his mouth full of food. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for language including sexual references; some alcohol abuse; smoking; and brief disturbing war images.)

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