The best parts of W., the Oliver Stone-directed biopic of sitting President George W. Bush are the ones that drape W.’s known biography over a father-son rivalry. Josh Brolin (as W.) and James Cromwell (as H.W.) spar verbally and at one point almost come to blows over W.’s profligate ways. The movie never explains how or why exactly Bush gave up drinking, found Jesus, and heard the call to run for President, but if there is a motivation, it is to make daddy proud. (His born again moment, in fact, hinges on a speech about Jesus the Son and God the Father.)
That’s why the movie is ultimately disappointing. There is no final confrontation between W. and H.W. By sticking mostly to public record (including many direct quotes from the Woodward books), the entertainment in many scenes comes not from any sense of suspense but from the caricatures of the personages. (Thandie Newton’s Condi Rice is at the absurd end of the spectrum, Iaon Gruffud’s Tony Blair is at the not-trying-at-all-end).
The conflict between Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is not fully developed either. We never do find out why, exactly, Powell carried the neocons’ water and spoke to the UN. The filmmakers saw the ball go up, but they lost it in the lights.
What W. does have going for it is the humor. It’s a dark, Strangelovian humor, but humor nonetheless. Brolin’s W. is a comic figure first and a tragic figure second.
The filmmakers enhance this with some odd gaps in the narrative. We don’t see Bush’s leadership on 9/11 or the discussions relating to the invasion of Afghanistan. The liberal I saw the movie with thought it was too easy on Bush. I’m sure conservatives will find it too harsh. I do think, by leaving out many of Bush’s talents (although his phenomenal memory gets screentime), the movie does itself a disservice. After all, it doesn’t matter how many family connections a true moron would have, he wouldn’t achieve the presidency. A life misunderestimated indeed.
Since I’ve paid close attention to the news the last 8 years, I can’t say that W. sheds any new light on the President or his compatriots. They say those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Oliver Stone and company studied their history – so why did they doom audiences to repeat it?