Oliver Stone's biographical take on the life of George W. Bush, one of the most controversial presidents in USA history, chronicling from his wild and carefree days in college, to his military service, to his governorship of Texas and role in the oil business, his 2000 candidacy for president, his first turbulent four years, and his 2004 re-election campaign. Written by
With his "in the moment" biopic "W." the normally volatile Oliver Stone wisely saves his judgments for history when hindsight will be 20/20. Achingly subdued and slightly satirical, Stone plays it straight and to the bone. Here he presents us with the early years of our current lame duck president, showing Dubya rushing a frat-house at Yale, meeting Laura at a barbecue, living in the shadow of his father and brother, his troubles holding down a job, his failed bid to become baseball commissioner, and his defining moment when he gives up drinking and becomes born-again. All of which leads us to his first term and the Iraq War quagmire, where Dubya honest-to-goodness truly believes "God" wanted him to become president and that Iraq did have those rascally WMD.
In the lead role, Josh Brolin is an endearingly bumble-headed Dubya, and Stone presents him as a simple-minded man with good intentions who has been crippled by his "daddy issues" and has surrounded himself with the most cynical, self-serving, and corrupt administration in modern American history. The supporting cast is a hoot, with highlights including Thandie Newton eliciting big laughs just with her facial expressions as a wicked and moronically faithful Condi Rice, Elizabeth Banks giving a winning portrayal of Laura Bush, and Richard Dreyfuss playing Cheney as the most insipid megalomaniac American politics has ever seen.
Stone accomplishes three major coups here that should surprise those who expected a one-sided liberal smear job. First, he humanizes George W. Bush. The director does this with savvy editing showing the back-story of why Dubya does the things he does (i.e. why he uses nicknames for everyone or why running three miles every day is so important to him), and then juxtaposing that with the inane decisions he has made as president. By utilizing actual transcripts from press conferences, news coverage, and meetings, Stone and scribe Stanley Weiser allow Bush and his administration to speak for themselves, and it's both comically cathartic and occasionally frightening to see it dramatized so well. Second, he redeems the presidency of George "Poppy" Bush (a somewhat miscast but still effective James Cromwell) by showing what a restrained and thoughtful Commander in Chief he was compared to his naive and too-eager-to-please son. Thirdly, he redeems the legacy of Colin Powell (a surprisingly good Jeffrey Wright), who is shown here as the only person in the administration with any hindsight or foresight, and the only sane voice who questioned the motives for entering Iraq, though he eventually caved in and played along. His "f-you" to Cheney towards the film's final act is priceless.
As the actual presidency still has a few months to go at the time of the film's release, Stone's biopic was never written a true ending, leaving us with a symbolic image of Dubya looking up to the sky in center field waiting to catch a ball that will never drop. It may be another twenty years before we can pass any accurate judgment on Dubya's legacy, and likewise, Stone's film will have to wait. It's going to be a long time before anyone catches all those balls George W. Bush's administration threw up in the air.
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