After eight years in the White House, you’d think all but the most die-hard Republicans would have had enough of George W. Bush. Well, as the opening weekend success of Oliver Stone’s biopic W. shows, there are plenty of Americans curious to know more about what makes our sitting president tick.
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser deserve considerable credit for making a non-sensationalistic, truth-seeking film that is far from an evisceration as some thought it would be -- and that some thought the subject deserved. While not without its moments of critique and humor at the president’s expense (although most of the latter are historically substantiated), W. is by and large a sober and even sympathetic examination.
The movie moves back and forth between the White House, as Bush (an excellent, Oscar-worthy Josh Brolin) and his cabinet — still reeling from the 9/11 attacks -- plan the war in Iraq, and Bush’s earlier years as a Yale frat boy, short-lived oil rig worker, wannabe pro baseball player and all-around Texas good ol’ boy. As much as these facts have been previously documented, the film provides revelatory depictions of his courtship of Laura (Elizabeth Banks), his loving but at times prickly relations with his parents (James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn, marvelous in her few short scenes as Barbara), his alcoholism and his religious experience of being born again. And who knew, if Weiser’s script is to be believed, that the Commander in Chief gave up eating sweets at the start of the war in Iraq as a sacrifice of solidarity with his troops?
In terms of Bush’s time in office, W. focuses primarily on the achievements and failures of the ongoing “War on Terrorism.” Richard Dreyfuss (as Dick Cheney), Jeffrey Wright (as Colin Powell) and Toby Jones (as Karl Rove) give exceptional performances that don’t strive for impersonation so much as capturing their characters’ integrity … or lack thereof. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Thandie Newton, who nails Condoleezza Rice’s voice and pinched facial expressions but too often borders on caricature, or Scott Glenn, who doesn’t really look or sound anything like Donald Rumsfeld.
Stone and Weiser periodically employ an interesting device of Bush in an empty baseball stadium, yearning for the applause of the presumed multitudes to come. It seems appropriate, and is used to haunting effect in the film’s final scene.
The script theorizes that the benefits and burdens our nation has endured under George Jr.’s leadership may, in the end, be more accurately attributed to George Sr. At press time, father and son hadn’t weighed in on W. publicly. Regardless, the film is a worthy initial effort in what will be history’s judgment of their mutual legacy.
UPDATE: W. is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.