Oliver Stone’s unpolished but finely tuned biopic of Western Civilization’s most controversial leader is a straight-ahead dramatized biographical film that pedals between George W. Bush’s misspent youth and his days in public office.
Josh Brolin is exceptional as Bush in a deeply personal portrayal of an ultimately tragic figure. Thandie Newton is spot-on as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and James Cromwell gives a multi-dimensional performance as George Bush Senior.
Stone has made an independent, workmanlike telling of the George W. Bush story that manages to compartmentalize the man and his bulldog administration. A bizarro musical score goes too far as a satirizing element, but the sheer gravity of Stone’s rigorous efforts to put a cinematic bow on the Bush administration compensates for the film’s sonic excesses.
The film’s weakest aspect is screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s shuffled format that wears out its welcome halfway through. Weiser creates a calland-response corollary between Bush’s aimless youth, where he developed a nasty drinking problem, to his teetotaler days as a born-again Christian in public office.
Predictably, the meat of the story comes out of Bush’s encounters with his ferociously disapproving father — called Poppy — who bails his reckless son out of trouble on more than a few occasions. The palpable conflict between father and son conveys areas of Bush Junior’s lazy decision-making process and overzealous attitude toward policy that Toby Jones’ Karl Rove seizes control of to pave the way for their entwined careers.
Iraq plays a significant role late in the film as a gritty thematic hook that brings Bush full circle to flaunting his powers as president in relation to his father’s dubious accomplishments during the Gulf War. To the film’s credit, it anchors W’s mismanaged war on Iraq to meetings with his snarky cabinet who bully Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) into forfeiting his reservations about the validity of preemptive military action based on shaky intelligence. The audience is a fly on the wall during cabinet discussions about generating the “Axis of Evil” buzzword and about selling the American public on the lie of “weapons of mass destruction,” and the effect is engrossing.
The group scenes are arresting for their candid banter but are played with only a modicum of mouth-foaming from Richard Dreyfuss’ restrained take on Dick Cheney and Scott Glenn’s similarly guarded version of the hawkish Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It’s here that we witness the telltale body language of predator politicians hatching plans that we know will spiral out of control.
W. is a fast-moving, topical film whose timing predates the end of an unlikely political career. It represents a cinematic kicking to the curb of a set of faulty ideologies rooted in a childish worldview and put forth by a group that relentlessly pursued a perfect storm of destruction. As a brief overview of the personal and political experiences of a man whose actions will impact America for generations to come, W. is a drop in the bucket. But it’s at least a drop that can be tasted and spit out. Grade: B
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