Director    Oliver Stone
Starring    Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton
Release    17 OCT (US) 7 NOV (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


11th November 2008

The cultural legacy of the Bush administration is one of opposition and subversion; from the songs of the Dixie Chicks, to the films of Michael Moore, to the literature of Ian McEwan. If Oliver Stone was hoping to earn his place in the canon of Bush-bashing, he's missed the mark with W. What the film does do is help us understand how a man as ill-equipped as George Bush Junior came to hold such power.

The film switches between the young Dubya living in the shadow of his political big shot father (played by James Cromwell) and scenes of Dubya as President, struggling to cope with the escalating crisis in Iraq. The young Dubya is a JD-swilling, womanising frat boy, devoid of responsibility. He meets future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), an intelligent, slightly bookish librarian, who inexplicably falls for the clumsy charm of George Junior. Laura helps George straightened himself out - he quits booze, finds God and decides his purpose in life is to lead his country. Laura remains faithfully by his side throughout but is conspicuously silent when it comes to political matters.

Josh Brolin's performance is outstanding. He succeeds in humanising a much hated public figure and has perfected the Texan drawl and squinting eyes; he looks more Bush than Brolin. His performance is understated and wonderfully judged, never succumbing to the temptation to turn Bush into a cartoon. The Bush buffoonery we are all familiar with is, of course, present in the movie. He tells journalists not to "misunderestimate" him and becomes tongue-tied and awkward whenever he is forced to go off page. And the pretzel incident is there in all its undignified glory. But rather than playing it for laughs, Brolin is able to evoke pathos for an inept man in over his head.

At the core of Dubya's psyche is the need to please his elder statesman father, who continually criticises his namesake and lavishes praise upon his favourite son, Jeb. Bush Senior pulls strings to get his wayward son into Yale and Harvard and later into employment, but he clearly expects George to screw up and he relishes any opportunity to say, "I told you so." It is inevitable that father and son will clash; the former is cautious and measured, the latter is hot headed and impulsive. The difference between the two men is highlighted in the handling of their respective conflicts in Iraq - George Bush Senior quits while he's ahead, George Bush Junior will not rest until Saddam Hussein is toppled and any insurgency quashed.

Stone's Dubya makes it to the White House through a combination of oedipal self-loathing, everyman appeal and an exceptional memory enabling him to memorise words and policies carefully written by others. The dubious election results of 2000 are no more than a footnote in this movie. It is a curious omission, one of several during the course of the film. Once in the Oval Office, Bush is surrounded by a Machiavellian bunch of advisers determined to turn the Middle East into a US oil field. Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney and Toby Jones as Karl Rove both turn in excellent performances as creeping political leeches. Some of the other actors in the film are impersonating rather than acting, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell in particular. They've got the clothes, the hair, the voice and the mannerisms down to the extent that they become caricatures, like watching Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.

This is Oliver Stone's third foray into big screen presidential portraits. W. lacks the controversy of JFK, having more in common with Nixon as a character study of a president, but lacking its grandiose, epic quality. Thankfully the overblown patriotism of World Trade Center is absent in W. - in fact, 9/11 is only referred to fleetingly, another of those aforementioned curious omissions. Stone is critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war, though the implication is that it's the fault of those surrounding the President and that he was duped along with the American public.

Stone's depiction of Bush as a young man teetering on the brink of alcoholism is far from flattering, but he shows how Bush admirably turned his life around. Despite the silver spoon wedged firmly in his mouth, Stone's Dubya embodies the American dream - if he can do it, anybody can. America desperately wanted to believe that a Texan everyman could lead them, as one of them. But as W. shows, this particular everyman was not up to the job. Stone attempts to use music to satirise Dubya, so when an important decision is made, a comical chorus of, "Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the glen" will be thrown in. Presumably the intention was to imply that Dubya is a bandit with a gang of merry men, but it jars with the tone of the film and is woefully misjudged. It is a cheap cinematic trick and Stone does not undermine Bush with this tactic, he undermines his own film.

W. is by no means the definite big screen dissection of the presidency of George W. Bush. It is a rushed and partial telling, though Brolin's performance will take some beating. Will Smith for Obama in 2016, anyone?

More:  Drama  Biopic  Politics  Morons
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