Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Stacy Keach, Ellen Burstyn
Summing up the legacy of a public figure, much less a president of the United States, in a two-hour film is a thankless – and damn near impossible – task, and it’s to American moviegoers’ distinct advantage that Oliver Stone has tried it as often as he has, because his seemingly bottomless well of chutzpah has led to a pair of fascinating (if utterly flawed) presidential films in JFK and Nixon. When Stone announced plans to direct a film about outgoing president George W. Bush, and have it in theaters in time for the 2008 elections, reaction to the news was more or less divided along the lines of political opinion – but Stone’s reputation as one of the more iconoclastic directors of our time seemed to guarantee that even if he didn’t deliver an even-handed review of our 43rd chief executive’s time in office, he’d at least make things interesting.
While making W., Stone told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t interested in demonizing Bush – that he saw his subject’s life as a quasi-Shakespearean tragedy, and he wanted to try and tell the story through Bush’s eyes – and as it turned out, Stone wasn’t just pulling our legs: W. really does try to deliver an empathetic portrait. That a political firebrand like Stone could focus so solidly on the personal aspects of a presidential biopic – during an election year, no less – is sort of amazing, but it isn’t the most surprising aspect of the film. No, the real shock of watching W. is just how goddamn dull it is; this despite a number of strong performances from his smartly assembled cast, this is the first truly boring movie of Stone’s career.
Commercially speaking, W. was doomed from the start – many conservatives hate Stone’s personal politics so much they immediately dismissed the movie, and most liberals and progressives were so burned out after eight years of Bush that they had no interest in reliving his time in office for two more hours – but it had a lot of artistic potential, all of which is squandered here by Stone’s resolute refusal to take a point of view. W. has the look and feel of an expensive TV movie; it’s really nothing more than a series of vignettes strung together by a few framing shots of Bush standing in an empty baseball stadium, hearing the roar of the crowd in his ears, and waiting at the warning track for a pop fly that never comes. Seriously, that’s as deep as Stone gets here. Sure, he dabbles a little in the psychology behind Bush’s infamous daddy issues, but for the most part, W. just skips along the surface, offering frequently hammy reenactments of key moments in his life and administration. You get Bush’s frat days, his early political forays, and plenty of time in the White House (although you do not, perplexingly, get a look at the chaos surrounding 9/11 and Katrina, the two domestic disasters that defined Bush’s terms).
What you really need for a picture like this to work, though – and what Stone is either incapable or unwilling to provide – is enough emotional depth to make it all matter, or even an identifiable point of view. You get the feeling that Stone knew his objectivity was going to be called into question, and worked strenuously to prove he could be even-handed, but filmmakers aren’t really supposed to be objective – they’re supposed to give viewers their own unique perspective. Whatever his other movies’ flaws, Stone has always delivered on that front; his political pictures, in particular, have the heft and attention to detail of master’s theses. W., in comparison, flutters like a Jehovah’s Witness flyer wedged in your door.
Fittingly for a picture this lightweight, the W. DVD doesn’t come bundled with a ton of extras. You do get a commentary track from Stone, which is worth hearing if only to obtain a deeper sense of all the ways he missed his goals for the film. There’s also a featurette titled “Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Presidency,” which, tellingly, wasn’t directed by Stone – not Oliver, anyway; it was helmed by his son, Sean, and even if it plays into every negative stereotype about Stone’s movies, it at least picks an argument and tries to make it. For the absolute completist, there’s also a DVD-ROM containing an annotated guide to the research that went into W. As with the commentary track, it’s more illustrative of the movie’s missed opportunities than anything else, but anyone who has a bone to pick with the movie can at least go to Stone’s sources for more information.
It must be said that when W. isn’t lulling you to sleep, it does a halfway decent job of giving its cast an opportunity to flash their chops – especially Josh Brolin, who manages to show bits of the well-meaning ideologue behind the oft-demonized Bush. The only really poor performance comes from Thandie Newton, whose Condi Rice seems to have wandered in from a horrible “Mad TV” sketch. Wedged in between Brolin’s full-bodied Bush and Richard Dreyfuss’ darkly layered Dick Cheney,