The mystery behind Oliver Stone's W. is the kind usually reserved for Bigfoot or P.T. Anderson films, and its few trailers fueled the fire of anticipation. Would the movie recount the most embarrassing moments of President George W. Bush's legacy, or would it dare to present a sympathetic portrait of the troubled Commander in Chief? With a filmmaker of Stone's disposition at the helm, you probably surmised W. would be no love letter. Surprisingly, however, this pseudo-hypothetical look at what drove the actions of the man currently sitting in the Oval Office is just crazy enough to work.
With W., Stone traces the life of Bush (played by Josh Brolin) from his college days to about 2004. Bush is depicted at first as something of a wild child, a guy not quite ready to handle the responsibilities of adulthood once his Yale party days came to a close. Failing in job after job, ol' W. continually serves as a disappointment to his father, the elder George Bush (James Cromwell), who grows tired of bailing out Junior time after time. But driven by a desire to earn his dad's respect, Bush sees making his own name in the world of politics as a way of winning him over.
Eventually abandoning the bottle and settling down with his supportive wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), Bush rises despite the odds, working on his own father's campaign before taking over the presidency himself. But the question of whether or not Bush was ready hangs heavy in the background, as Bush's steadfast determination to prove himself to his "Poppy" may have come with a price.
Some of the audience members at the screening I attended weren't watching W. in the right frame of mind. Throughout the film, I heard remarks like "That's Rumsfeld!" or "That's Cheney!" being bandied about. If gawking at who's playing each part is the only reason someone paid to see W. in the first place, then that viewer missed the film's point entirely. The same goes for those who dislike the movie because of its very idea and are determined to hate it before they set foot in the theatre. Yes, Stone catches Bush at some of his most unflattering moments, but his approach involves more than standing back and laughing at the man's doofus antics.
Stone's aim is to work his way into Bush's various nooks and crannies, to make the best guess possible concerning why he did what he did on the road to the White House. Stone does this mostly by presenting Bush's rise as the result of a bad father/son relationship, a storytelling device that's admittedly a little cheap and incorporated a few times too often. But it certainly does the trick, especially when Bush's eagerness to please is unwittingly turned against him. It's fascinating to see figures like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove in action here, manipulating the well-meaning Bush into pushing their own agendas. Of course, W. won't make detractors fall in love with the much-criticized Bush, but Stone's efforts to put the man's history into perspective are admirable and pay off handsomely. Love Bush or hate Bush, W. keeps you wondering what it's going to do next.
How well do the actors play their real-life counterparts? The results are mostly positive, with a bad apple or two in the mix. Brolin has W's mannerisms and speech down pat and does a brilliant job conveying the "Aw, shucks" Everyman charm that got him elected in the first place. Cromwell looks next to nothing like the elder Bush, though it's easily forgiven because of how well he plays a father running out of excuses to support his son. Toby Jones makes a weasely Karl Rove, and Jeffrey Wright delivers a noble turn as Colin Powell, but it's Richard Dreyfuss' scary-good performance as Cheney that may be the film's highlight. The only actor I didn't care much for is Thandie Newton, who looks a lot like Condoleezza Rice but delivers a cringe-inducing imitation of the real thing.
What's the purpose behind W.? I'm not sure, though its rushed production in order to be in movie houses before the upcoming election is one clue. Regardless, W. drew me in like few films have succeeded in doing this year. I found it to be a wise and delicately-balanced picture that presents a thought-provoking guess about what went on in Bush's brain.
MY RATING: *** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Lionsgate and rated "PG-13" for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.)