Loathe him or hate him, George Walker Bush has a fascinating life story, a uniquely American tale of triumph over stupidity. He may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he soaked it in alcohol and threw it in the dumpster, squandering help, privilege and opportunities until the Lord came a-knocking. So regardless of your – or director Oliver Stone’s – political proclivities, W. is rooted in inherently compelling material.
The first act, focusing on the boozing and using years, is a particularly enjoyable look at a man totally off the rails. It’s an eye-opening one too, for those who know only the basic outline of Bush’s lost years. And that’s a fair few, given the current administration’s talent for suppressing information. So we get to see the pre-President doing very unpresidential things. Free from having to embody the Bush we know, Josh Brolin excels, bristling with energy as the young Dubya barhops, (maybe) knocks up a local and doesthe occasional turn in the slammer. (No doubt the Republicans will say it ain’t so, but Stone has set up a website detailing his sources…)
The filmmaker uses these early-years scenes to establish his central arc: the relationship between Bush Jnr and Snr George HW. Played with no-nonsense stoicism by the ever-fine James Cromwell, Snr’s understandably less than impressed by his tearaway eldest and his influence turns out to be both blessing and curse for Dubya, a theme tackled with a heavy hand by Stone.
With the party-boy picture duly painted – with barely a mention of the Texas Air National Guard years – Act Two covers more familiar territory. He meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), sobers up, finds Jesus, runs for Governor of Texas – all in time to help dad in his successful late-’80s run for presidency. Again Brolin does an excellent job inhabiting without impersonating, but it’s here that W. begins to seem mildly superficial – and superfluous. Events are covered, boxes are ticked – but to what end?
In being non-partisan, Stone misses the chance to say anything truly pointed or pertinent; W. encroaches on TV-movie territory, with production values to match. These entertaining flashbacks are sprinkled throughout the film, acting as counterpoint to the Presidential years. Rather than cover Bush’s entire tenure though, Stone focuses on October ’01 to March ’03, the critical post-9/11 period that would ultimately seal the Pres’ legacy. Much of the action moves to the White House’s situation room, where men with hidden agendas plot to take us to war.
Here Stone at last dares to editorialise, staging scenes of suited power-players scoffing pecan pie while blithely making decisions that will send thousands of men and women to their deaths. He also mixes in real-life footage of combat horror that’s all the more potent for being banned from US news outlets since the war’s inception. It’s chilling, worrying stuff – particularly the bit where Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) promotes his vision of a new world order.
Alas, the impact is slightly sapped by W.’s unfortunate tendency to make you snigger at inappropriate moments. Bush’s famous malapropisms are funny, but often they chafe against the dramatic context, coming off as facetious. And though the likes of Dreyfuss and Toby Jones as Karl Rove emerge as characters rather than caricatures, Thandie Newton is comically mannered as Condoleezza Rice, while Ioan Gruffudd’s bumbling Blair is mercifully marginalised.
Perhaps it’s just all too soon for this. With key personnel and events fresh in our minds, still appearing on the daily show that is the world news, W. occasionally plays like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. Stone himself has said he felt that if he didn’t make the movie right now, it probably wouldn’t be made for a long time. Maybe, for all the entertainment value, that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.
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