Oliver Stone continues his tradition of trend of biopics by looking at the life of our 43rd President, George W. Bush. Josh Brolin leads another star-packed ensemble portraying the life and moral decision making of the younger Bush.W. isn't a bad movie, but it is a strangely tame one. While it does have moments of intense criticism, they're presented in a goofy and obvious way. Stone wants to criticize the Bush administration, but can't seem to come up with many new ways to do it, and he ends up giving us a movie that tells us things we already know but with most of the bite removed.
The tone is a problem for me here because most of the time it seems verging on outright satire — not political satire with well-placed barbs hidden in the dialogue and interactions, but more broad, as if Stone didn't want us to view the world of the film realistically. Brolin's performance contributes to this throughout, as he plays Bush as essentially a clueless man-child one step away from Will Farrel's take on Saturday Night Live.
It's not that the exaggeration is out of place, but it's also not new or surprising, and this level of silliness prevents him from saying anything truly interesting. If he were to go one step further with it and make this a view of the Bush-era presidency that played up all the common notions of the man and his administration to farcical levels, it may have been more entertaining. If he had reigned it in a bit to attempt to offer a more complex view of Bush's presidency, his underlying criticisms would hit harder and speak deeply to how basic human faults can have far-reaching ramifications. Again, while I don't think this is a bad movie, Stone can't have both.
What does work in a kind of endearing way about W. is Stone's tendency to portray Bush as a man out of his depth who often doesn't even realize the political schemes being constructed around him. He seems to have sympathy for the former president, showing him as a man incapable of living up to his father's enormous expectations and continuously making the wrong choices in a lifelong effort of appeasement. The argument that extends from this is that Bush was a pawn of a corrupt political system, with colleagues of his father using him to enact their own will and plans while he scrambled just to keep up.To be clear, I like the idea here. I think it was bold to make a movie about one of the most reviled presidents in history, while he was still in office, disapproval levels at all-time highs, and present him as an inherently decent, if fairly stupid, flawed person. But to make the movie interesting in a more substantial way, I think Stone needed to create scenes of interaction and political inner-workings that seem grounded in reality. Instead he takes ideas firmly drawn from reality and presents them at a level between realism and farce, and it has the strange effect of actually disarming a lot of the criticism.
There's a scene where Richard Dreyfus (a good choice to play Cheney but not properly used here) addresses the president along with Rumsfeld, Powell, and the rest of Bush's cabinet about why they must go to war with Iraq — he delivers a long, menacing monologue that ends with something like “control the oil, control the world.” It's a scene that reflects a common and generally agreed upon notion about why the administration went to war, but in laying things out so plainly, in such a melodramatic scene — I half expected Cheney to pull a hood over his head at the end and cackle like The Emperor — Stone robs himself of the ability to say or do anything new.
That said, the scenes dealing most personally with Bush work best, and there's enough there to make for an interesting viewing — I just don't understand why Stone presented so much of this as a cartoon without genuinely going for it.
So, where's the controversy?
I don't really remember much controversy when the movie was released, which isn't terribly surprising considering it's not savage enough to upset many conservatives (and so many of them had given up on old Bush by that point anyway) or rally many liberals. It seems to me the controversy should, if anything, have been Stone's moderate take on a president so inherently controversial himself. At the time I was a bit surprised, Stone having always been a notably liberal director, that he didn't try to completely eviscerate the entire Bush administration.
Looking back at his filmography, this isn't all that surprising — at many points, he's made a career out of examining the way politics and large-scale social mechanisms engulf those involved, often to tragic effect. It may be a testament to his gradual loss of nerve here that so little controversy generated by a movie made and released about and during the term of a sitting president.
How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?
Not very well, though that may have been part of what he wanted. Granted, he hits most of the major complaints against the Bush administration and draws out the common argument that his presidency was an ill-conceived attempt to impress daddy, but this doesn't really capture the “spirit of the times.” That would have involved much more anger, and probably a much more demeaning view of Bush. Stone goes against the zeitgeist by presenting the president with a degree of sympathy, which again, in theory, should make it more interesting.
That's fine, but is it any good?
I've tried to walk a fine line here between what I see as the potential for this to be an incredibly surprising, interesting, complex film and the substantial failings of Stone's approach to the material. Stone is a director who throughout this project has consistently impressed me with his command of film technique—he can evoke a visceral, emotional reaction in the viewer masterfully—but disappoints when it comes to the storytelling. Here I think his impulses in telling the story are correct, but his presentation is off.
Does that result in a bad movie? No. But it results in one less successful than it should, and with a filmmaker who started out as audacious as Oliver Stone did, that's a disappointment regardless.