To admire Oliver's Stone's President Bush biopic W. is to admire a few interesting trees in lieu of the gnarled and desolate forest around them. The film's overall narrative is insanely chaotic, messy, and structureless, trying too hard to be a character study to be an effective political exposé and trying too hard be a political exposé to be an effective character study, but there are a few individually fascinating scenes and a handful of solid performances.
The film is divided into two separate and intercut halves, one about W.'s personal life, alcoholism, relationship with Laura, and daddy issues, taking place from his Yale undergrad days through his election to the Texas governorship in 1994, and the other taking place from 2002 - 2004 and about his administration and the beginnings of the Iraq War (his dubious "election" to the presidency and 9/11 are skipped over). The political half is the more interesting of the two; Bush's alcoholism doesn't really grab me that much, his daddy issues with George H.W. Bush come across as 90% fictional extrapolation, and although I like Elizabeth Banks she's absurdly young to be playing Laura Bush.
It's in the 2002 - 2004 segment that the meat and potatoes of the film lie. That George W. Bush is the worst president in the history of the United States of America is indisputable fact and beyond questioning, and Oliver Stone thankfully doesn't condescend to us by drilling that in beyond what is necessary. He does toy with the source of this ineptitude, however. Bush is portrayed as a bumbling good old boy in over his head and controlled solely by his cabinet, and while I don't doubt the in over his head part is accurate, it's an unjust absolving of Bush's sins to act like he wasn't aware of what he was doing when he invaded Iraq. He's dumb but I don't believe he's that dumb.
Looking for heroes and villains, Oliver Stone foregoes any hint of subtlety, opting to depict Colin Powell an angel descended from heaven to take his place amid the villains of Bush's cabinet, a living saint who tried to fight the Iraq War to the end, and Dick Cheney as an evil overlord giving ominous, booming speeches in front of global maps about the need for an American Empire. You practically expect John Williams' Imperial March to start playing. Now, I respect General Powell for endorsing Barack Obama and I detest Dick Cheney as much as anyone, but I don't buy either of these depictions. Colin Powell gave that stupid speech about WMDs - there is blood on his hands too - and as bad as Dick Cheney may be the Emperor Palpatine-style depiction is just absurd.
However, despite the ridiculousness of their depictions, Jeffrey Wright and Richard Dreyfuss may do the best work in the film as, respectively, Powell and Cheney, which made me wish that more of the film took place in the 2002 - 2004 timeframe and less in Bush's booze-soaked background story where they never appear. Josh Brolin's Bush isn't half-bad either. He comes across as a little too intelligent as points but he does a good job more or less with the facial expression and voice and general vibe. No other performance in the film lingers in my memory in the least except for Thandie Newton's hideously bizarre, borderline grotesque depiction of Condi Rice, an absurd caricature so over the top that it wouldn't pass muster on Saturday Night Live. I don't know if she thought the movie was a comedy or what, but she surely deserves to sweep the Razzie Worst Actress award off its feet.
Now, there are moments of policy discussion, particularly one tense immediate pre-war conversation between Powell and Cheney, that I found fascinating. But it's unfortunate that looking back on the movie I can barely remember any of the pre-White House material that takes up half the film. Bush the man is just a pampered rich kid and frankly not that interesting. I think that more historical distance and perspective is needed before a film like this. The movie was engaging enough during its runtime but I am unlikely to ever watch it again and it will have no enduring cultural value whatsoever.
2 Stars out of 5