Bush made human

W. (2008)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeffrey Wright
Rated PG-13, 131 minutes
*** / *****

In just a few short days, the U.S. will elect its new President. George W. Bush, after eight long years, will step down, leaving a legacy of war, questionable policies and steadily declining approval ratings. Oliver Stone attempts to define this legacy, and make sense of a genuinely fascinating public figure, in the new biographical film entitled simple “W."

Stone is a versatile filmmaker, known for everything from the 1986 Vietnam film “Platoon” and 2004’s incoherent “Alexander,” to the 1991 Oscar-winner “JFK” and 2006’s “World Trade Center.” Though “W.” sports its fair share of flaws, I’m tempted to call it Stone’s best since “JFK,” if only for its superb portrayal of Bush.

“W.” is a fairly straightforward biopic, following in a non-linear fashion the rise of Bush from alcoholic college burnout to governor and, finally, President of the United States of America.

Promising up-and-comer Josh Brolin (whom I first noticed in Robert Rodriquez’s “Planet Terror,” and later recognized in the Coen brothers’ brilliant “No Country for Old Men”) tackles the role of George W. Bush. Brolin doesn’t really look like Bush—he’s taller, better looking, with a firmer chin—but 20 minutes into the movie, that doesn’t matter.

Brolin nails it: the accent, the mannerisms, that awkward little this-press-conference-isn’t-going-well chuckle we’ve grown to hate. And with Stone superimposing Brolin’s likeness on existing news footage of Bush, the illusion is made solid. Brolin is fully believable.

The cast in general is stellar. Stone has done some interesting yet brilliant casting, with supporting actors Jeffrey Wright (playing Colin Powell), Richard Dreyfuss (as the leering Dick Cheney) and Thandie Newton (unrecognizable as Condoleezza Rice) being the real standouts. The uncomfortable, often heated war room conflict between Powell and Cheney was an intriguing aspect for me—it could have been a film all its own.

In some aspects, though, “W.” is disappointing. Often, things are overlooked. Events such as the 2000 and 2004 elections, rife with scandal and doubt, receive mere offhand mentions, while Bush nearly choking to death on a pretzel warrants a scene in slow-motion. In this, “W.” feels lopsided and disjointed, at once relevant and yet somewhat meaningless.

But what really makes this film is the insight it presents to the audience, painting Bush not as the unintelligent country bumpkin caricature he’s become, but as an honestly well-meaning—if misguided—man. We see him troubled, unable to sleep, a grimace playing at the corners of his mouth, pondering the mistakes of his administration. Bush is a man pushed into politics by a need to impress his father.

Lacking self-confident decisiveness, he surrounds himself with a cabinet of genuinely intelligent (and conniving) people, and allows himself to be swayed in a peer-pressure-esque fashion by people like Cheney and the manipulative Karl Rove (Toby Jones), whose ulterior and sadistic motives are not made clear.

“W.” is not overtly anti-Bush, nor does it attempt to garner sympathy from the audience. As in “JFK,” Stone remains neutral, and allows the story to unfold, with competent actors at the helm. “W.” merely presents, for once, a case for George Bush the person, not George Bush the President—a foolish boy who grew up and tried to finish what daddy started.

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