Posted at 8:17 AM on October 17, 2008
by Euan Kerr
Oliver Stone's "W." is remarkable in many ways, and quite entertaining, but somehow leaves you wanting.
The film jumps back and forward through the life and times of George W. Bush, leaping from his waging of the Iraq war to his time as hard partying cheerleader at Yale, and then back to the White House. We see him courting Laura, desperately seeking his father's approval, struggling with and overcoming alcohol, becoming born again, all interspersed with cabinet meetings, and discussions of the war on terrorism.
This might be confusing if it was any other story, but we know this history. It's the stuff that has been in the news, in magazine articles, in books, and on the late night comedy shows for the eight years of the G.W. presidency.
It's being packaged differently of course, and in the main, it's packaged well. Josh Brolin as W captures the swagger and the mannerisms of his subject. There are some other startling portrayals too: Richard Dreyfuss as Vice-President Cheney, complete with sideways lockjaw grin, Thandi Newton as the ever-stiff Condi Rice, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush.
However there are also times when the whole thing takes on the air of a Saturday Night Live skit. The famous lines and the mangled English are all there, but sometimes the cast can't hold the suspension of disbelief. The itch for a punchline becomes unbearable, and then when some line does come through, such as "he misunderestimates me," or "Is our children learning" there is a sense of being left hanging, because it's not a joke.
The film is well over two hours long, and ultimately what emerges is a sympathetic portrait of a man, driven to overcome his challenges and his demons. Yet it's hard to pinpoint what new we have learned about George W. Bush when all is said and done. Unlike Curtis Sittenfield's "American Wife" which invents a back story for someone who appears a great deal like Laura Bush, other than a few dream sequences in "W" this all appears to have been reported before.
Maybe the challenge is the lack of an ending. This is the first feature film about a sitting president, even if there are just a few months left in his second term. History needs a little more time to digest and sort out the larger meaning of the W. story. But we frail humans want to know the answer now.
"W" is far from a waste of two hours, but it won't and can't give that answer.
Yes, "W"was a rather strange movie-going experience. Perhaps part of this had to do with the fact that we are still so close to many of the events portrayed and/or referenced in the film. But I was also struck by Stone's persistence in keeping the focus of the film on Bush's personal life and his struggles with his family and father. The central focus and theme of the film is clearly George W's relationship with his father, George H. W. --a kind of Freudian psycho-drama. This keeps the important political issues and events that we associate with George W. Bush firmly in the background (with the exception of one or two scenes, such as the cabinet discussion about invading Iraq in which Colin Powell becomes angry). So the film diverts us, I think, from once again reconsidering the political events of the last ten years, and focuses instead on a new, and yes sympathetic, life story of a man struggling with his own ghosts. It is more of a Shakesperean tragedy than a political film, and I suspect that this messes with the expectations that most of us brought with us into the theater.