The latest entry in “Too soon!” cinema comes courtesy of acclaimed inflammatory director Oliver Stone. (Returning to this newly-christened genre after 2006’s unremarkable World Trade Center) His new film, W., is the first, and hopefully last, filmed biography of a U.S. president who has yet to pack his White House bags. Yep, George W. Bush may have spawned a flurry of calamities over his two terms in office, but you sure can’t knock the man for failing to inspire the artistic community.
The film opens with Dubya, (Josh Brolin) wearing a baseball cap, and standing alone in an empty ballpark, his arms raised to an invisible roaring crowd. We are then dropped unexpectedly into a post-9/11 Oval Office roundtable conference, where Bush and his peanut gallery of political confidants and strategists brainstorm possible nicknames for the rising terrorist threat (Axis of Hatred is briefly considered). The film uses this key beginning point to travel on a non-linear path through the soon-to-be former Pres’ life: from drunken frat-boy, to failed oilman and baseball manager, to over-whelmed chief-of-staff circa 2003, struggling with a job he seems completely unqualified for.
And damn it all if Mr. Brolin doesn’t sucker us in right off the bat. He’s disarmingly charismatic, occasionally inarticulate for sure, but plucky and filled with infectious confidence. The actor pulls off a tricky job, burrowing inside the skin of a man who has already developed into a pop-culture joke, a walking caricature who has been lampooned by a generation of comedic talent. Brolin has side-stepped imitation and, through measured amounts of organic vocal and physical mannerisms, captured the spirit of Dubya. The brilliance of the performance lies in the fact that we forget we’re even seeing one, drawn in by that intangible magnetism that the most skilled of politician’s possess.
It’s too bad that Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who penned the director’s 1987 hit Wall Street) couldn’t come up with an interesting tale to match the actor’s show-stopping efforts. W.’s script just sorta meanders around, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes tediously, in search of who-knows-what?! They aren’t particularly interested in Bush’s early days, which are only lightly touched upon in flashback, with the most infamous moments of youthful debauchery all but ignored. This particular decision hurts the film’s later scenes dealing with Bush’s conversion to Christianity and subsequent oath to quit drinking. I didn’t even realize the dude had a problem...
We do witness his first meeting with future-wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks, wasted in a nothing role), but their relationship is quickly scuttled into the background. As well, material featuring current administrative members (Richard Dreyfuss kills as a malevolent Cheney, while Thandie Newton goes SNL-broad with an awesome/awful Condoleezza Rice impression) are highlighted in a number of key moments, but ultimately exist just outside the film’s focal point.
Rather, Stone seems far more interested in Junior’s relationship with stern, determined Bush Senior, played with grumpy dignity by James Cromwell. The elder Bush is sick to death of watching his unmotivated, party-animal bum of a son putter from one failed venture to the next, dragging the family name down with him. Stone douses the film with steaming spoon-fuls of Freudian subtext, hypothesizing Dubya’s entire life and career as being driven by raging daddy issues. Trouble is, that’s about all he has up his sleeve.
The story’s crucial failure to engage us lies in the fact that no one behind the camera seemed compelled to aim for anything insightful or profound. As a biography it’s superficially bland (No mention of his controversial election OR second term in office???), but as a psychological study, W.’s as shallow as Bill O’Reilly is obnoxious. In addition, hinging a major dramatic moment on a dream sequence is always a cheap gimmick, but here it’s amateurish and embarrassing.
The real stumbling block of Stone’s film is its complete lack of perspective. We have no comprehension of Bush’s place in history, so the whole exercise feels hollow and inert. Walking out of the theatre, I didn’t possess any more insight into the real George Jr. that I had strolling in. At the end of the day, W. is too safe, too vague and too... soon.
2.5 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Oct. 20, 2008.