* * 1/2
D: Oliver Stone
W: Stanley Weiser
S: Josh Brolin
After sitting through "that" film, I'm still left asking the unanswerable question - why? Why does Oliver Stone feel the need to make this film, why do it how he does, and why now? There are moments of "W." that feel like some of the most honest he's made in years, but many that feel stinted and beneath him. Too much is artificial, too much is contrived.
Stone uses history as a dramatic canvas, with the biggest fault being the script by Stanley Weiser. If Stone had written it by himself it could probably be a more controlled and steady work, but Weiser's bizarre intermittent allusions to actual dialogue and historical instances often feels clumsy and mishandled. What is fascinating about "W." and what ultimately makes it kind of-sort of work as a movie is how Stone reduces historical figures into allegorical concepts and rebuilds them into complexities. Beyond that, Stone's economy as a filmmaker is pervasive; he doesn't waste any time with his flash because he's interested in forward momentum. He rarely weights his project down and his shots all feel even - maybe even rushed - in the interest of getting his film made and delivered at this junction in history. Maybe not to impact the election (because the portrait of the Republican is not really that scathing) but to say "I beat you to it; this is the first narrative film about this man and what he means."
I honestly don't believe he's out to demonize Bush. Bush is crafted as a complex man, almost larger than life. He is a pawn in a Republican game, the puppet to Cheney and Rove, a decider without anything to decide. He's a man trying to prove himself, haunted by the legacy his name is equated to. Though the film has several moments that plays on Bush's notorious ability to confuse and mispronounce words, it actually takes on larger implications by the end. Bush is never shown as an "evil" man, but perhaps a misguided one - someone who wanted to change the world for the better and inadvertently caused the system to fall apart.
Josh Brolin is absolutely phenomenal as George W. Bush. He's in nearly every moment of the film, and every tiny gesture, every little inflection he adds makes it seem like he's on a much deeper level than his director. Brolin actually wants to sympathize with Bush, and regardless of how much truth is behind the film's psychological underpinnings, it makes for compelling entertainment. Bush becomes a classic tragic figure; a man who wanted to turn his life into something good, who became "straight" only to fall. His performance goes beyond mere mimicry and tugs at something deeper.
The film builds itself backwards and forwards until the debacle of the Iraq War, when the WMD intelligence turned out to be flawed only after the fact. Richard Dreyfuss, as a crooning and manipulative Cheney and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush give the ensemble's most textured performances. Toby Jones gives a good Rove impression, but he feels utterly miscast, as does Thandie Newton as Rice and James Cromwell as George Bush, Sr. Jeffrey Wright (as Colin Powell) is cast as the "good guy" who fights against the Iraq war, which helps the dramatic flow of the narrative but seems to make the character too awkward and one-dimensional.
So, all this rambling, but where do I end up on W.? There are moments where it takes on the pathos of a Greek tragedy, a kind of tragicomic rumination on what happens behind the closed doors of power. It doesn't attempt to break any new ground, but I don't think it wants to. Stone's film may gain more attention as time goes by, or it may fade away. By coming out NOW, before Bush leaves office, Stone beats the history books to the punch. If he had waited decades, the history would have told us what kind of man George W. Bush. Stone tries to answer that question for us, and for the most part I admire the way he toys with the historical facts to fit his dramatic ideals. He does so with a subtle reserve that seems to always say "this is a dramatic reconstruction, not a documentary" but always trying to stay closer to the mark than would be expected.
It's actually a pretty admirable movie, though I somehow wish it were longer, deeper, more penetrating. It feels largely incomplete and I'd like to see it again when it's on DVD. Some people might see it as a largely empty movie, but I think there's something deeper and more profound going on here: Stone recasts history as high art, as penetrating food for thought, as a kind of somber "Dr. Strangelove" for the modern political discourse, where the people in control may not know all they think they do. Regardless of how "W." ends up being perceived, it's a commendable effort. If anything, Josh Brolin is utterly fabulous. His quieter moments behind those squinting eyes hint at a deep sorrow, and when Stone puts his complete trust in Brolin, letting him develop Bush to his own liking, the film is like some kind of awestrikingly unique character portrait being painted with history's clock.