I never thought I would say this, but I was genuinely charmed and touched by the George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's poignant "W." Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser have crafted a funny, illuminating story of how Bush transformed from college drunkard to U.S. president. They have successfully humanized a widely hated leader and created a powerfully contemporary movie for an audience that has lived and continues to experience the reign of Bush.
The film begins with a few clunky moments before diving straight into Bush's rise. There's a silly motif of Bush (Josh Brolin) imagining a crowd cheering for him in an empty baseball field followed by an over-the-top scene where Bush and his cohorts are writing the "Axis of Evil" speech. Soon enough we see young Bush initiated at his Yale fraternity and get the sense he's directionless and a disappointment to his father George Sr. (James Cromwell). George Sr. is investing his care and support for his older sibling Jeb and finds Bush flaky and destructive to the family name.
Intermixed with Bush's past are moments of him in office prior to initiating the Iraq War. In one memorable scene, we see Dick Cheney's (Richard Dreyfuss) sly manipulation over Bush while they have lunch in the White House. He asks Bush if he would eat his ham and cheese sandwich if there was a 1% chance the lettuce had a disease. Bush agrees, we laugh and the early mindset behind a pre-emptive attack becomes clear.
In the mid-80s and midway through the film, Bush becomes a born again Christian – sacrificing alcohol and desiring to make something of himself. The crux of his reform stems from his father's lack of appreciation and love, making Bush's deep-seated insecurities to impress his father remarkably sympathetic. If only it did not lead him to war.
He runs for governor of Texas coached by his longtime advisor Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and finds more confrontation when his father tells him its not the right time and his mother (Ellen Burstyn) claims he's too gutsy and temperamental like herself. Later as president, he's planning how to convince the American people that WMDs exist in Iraq and everything goes downhill from there.
Brolin valiantly portrays Bush as personable, driven, awkward and prone to malapropisms. He's in nearly every scene and never ceases to impress and communicate Bush's underlying troubles. We laugh at him when he fumbles on old sayings, "If you fool me once…" or talks with his mouth full while wolfing down a sandwich. We are touched when he confides to his supportive wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) in their White House bedroom that he wanted to be a good guy fighting the evil outside America. Oscars take note.
Supporting performances range from strong hits to caricatures. Cromwell shines with toughness and hidden insecurities as the film's antagonist. Dreyfuss expertly personifies Cheney's look and attitude, with a particularly shocking moment in a boardroom presentation of why Iran is the oil powerhouse the U.S. must control. Banks hits a few good notes as Laura, but her part is underwritten. The same goes for Burstyn, who still manages to bring impressive maternal power to Barbara Bush. Rounding out the Washington group is a capable Jeffrey Wright as the dissenting Colin Powell who goes along with the team despite knowing better. Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice is overacted and would be more at home in an SNL sketch.
Overall, whether you're pro-Bush or not, this movie packs enough humor and drama to fascinate audiences.
3.5 out of 4 stars.
("W." is now out on DVD)
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Told in broken chronology, W. focuses on Bush’s post-9/11 path to waging a “preventive war” in Iraq despite no hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction to justify it. The major players in W’s administration--Rove, Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), and especially Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss)--all participate in closed meetings that look and sound like ...