Oliver Stone's newest film, W., follows the adult life of our current President, focusing mainly on his rise in politics and the first term of his Presidency. Considering that Dubya has a couple more months to go before he ends his reign over the executive branch, the film may seem a little too eager to immortalize Bush on celluloid. Indeed, without the 20/20 vision of some temporal distance, the film seems half-done. Instead of adding editorial commentary on Bush's life and work, Stone focuses on repeating speeches, meetings, and conferences word-for-word in order to remain faithful to current history. Unfortunately, even an excellent performance from Josh Brolin (as Dubya) can't rescue the film from feeling irrelevant. The collected reviews, after the jump.Slate:
My enjoyment of this film hovered perilously close to camp at times. Stone's musical choices lay it on particularly thick: He accompanies a party scene during Bush's drinking years with the Freddy Fender song "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and scores the fall of Baghdad to the marchlike rhythm of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." But if Stone's portrait of George Bush is laid on with a trowel, maybe it's because God seems to have engineered the real Bush's life with a similarly crude sense of irony. W. is a case of biographer and subject being perfectly matched: You really don't want a Bush biopic directed by Jean-Luc Godard (though Robert Altman could have done something interesting with it if he were still around). Like Tina Fey's Sarah Palin, Stone's George Bush gets his best lines straight from the source. This movie was scripted by screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) but was ghostwritten by history itself.
Yes, "W." is definitely satiric in intent and execution, and it has no love for the actions and policies of the man who has led, as the film's advertising puts it, "a life misunderestimated." But those yearning for a red meat entree, a kind of "Natural Born Killers" meets "JFK," will be disappointed. There is a restraint about "W." that is both pleasing and effective. There are reasons to smile in this film, but not nearly as many as you'd think. Instead the message is that what has happened to this country is no laughing matter.
W. could have benefited from the perspective that comes with time. It might have been a better film had it come out later, when shading and context could have been added. To assess his true character requires knowledge of Bush's final few months in office and how his decisions spill over onto the next presidency.
Mother Jones: (Roundtable review)
Elizabeth: Back to Katrina for a hot sec. That was such a f-up, and less trodden than the "My Pet Goat" disaster on 9/11 that Fahrenheit 9/11 illustrated. I guess giving us Katrina would be more of an advance on the story. WMDs and yellowcake to me feels like old news, especially when you're timing your release two weeks before a presidential election. Jesse: But it [the movie] didn't really look at Bush's second term at all, did it? Elizabeth: No, it didn't, which to me felt incomplete. My last thought? It was alright, but it certainly wasn't better than "Cats."
When Oliver Stone's bizarre and bloated "Nixon" opened 13 years ago, the 37th president had recently died, after being out of office for two decades. When his screwball tragedy "J.F.K." opened in early 1992, the 35th president had been dead for almost three decades. George W. Bush is very much with us, of course, but it's unlikely that "W." will make many waves, and not just because the 43rd president is an exceedingly lame duck. Mr. Stone's latest POTUS potshots are scattered at best, and his hopscotch approach to recent history drains context and significance, not to mention shock and awe, from the enormous events that have marked the second Bush presidency. Feature films are, by their slow-gestating nature, unable to rival the spectacular sizzle of a Tina Fey skewering Sarah Palin, but this one also scants the steak. In spite of Josh Brolin's heroic efforts, "W." is a skin-deep biopic that revels in its antic shallowness.
Stone's latest foray into political cinema is a shapeless grab-bag of familiar incidents and quotations (many of them placed in the wrong context or uttered by the wrong mouth) posing as a character study of the 43rd president of the United States. It's a film that seems pitched at an almost unimaginably thin cross-section of viewers: those who follow politics closely enough to catch its constant self-conscious references, but not closely enough to recognize it as a shallow, ham-fisted portrait.
“W.” isn’t as visually baroque as “JFK” (1991) and “Nixon” (1995), Mr. Stone’s darker, more ambitious excursions into the American psyche and presidency, partly because, I think, he does not yet have enough aesthetic distance from his subject and partly because he seems keen to weigh in as more evenhanded than usual. But while he has tamped down his style, he retains a pleasingly fluid approach to narrative. The story repeatedly shifts between scenes of the younger Bush meandering through his life, and the older Bush navigating through the early stages of the Iraq war. This shuttling across time and space undercuts the drama — the story doesn’t so much build as restlessly circle back — but it puts into visual terms Mr. Stone’s ideas about the present and past being mutually implicated.
Stone is sometimes a fine director and sometimes a total nutball; sometimes he's both at once. But "W." needs more nuts and less finesse. That's not to say the movie is exactly subtle — this is an Oliver Stone picture we're talking about. It's just that Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser seem to be torn between duty and impulse: Stone, who has earned plenty of accolades for ponderous, heavyweight pictures like "Nixon," may have felt compelled to deliver a historical document, something that will stand for the ages. But he also tips his hand frequently enough to let us in on his true feelings about our 43rd president: Stone leaves no doubt about his meaning when he shows his characters — Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, Franks, Powell, et al. — trooping across a field in Crawford, Texas, as the theme from the '60s TV show "The Adventures of Robin Hood" tootles in the background. It's when Stone engages in shameless editorializing — when he lets his freak-flag point of view fly, rather than tempering it — that "W." is most entertaining and most vital. The rest of the time it feels too much like awards bait: stiff, arch and knowing.
One might feel sorry for George W. at the end of this film, were it not for his legacy of a fraudulent war and a collapsed economy. The film portrays him as incompetent to be president, and shaped by the puppet masters Cheney and Rove to their own ends. If there is a saving grace, it may be that Bush will never fully realize how badly he did. How can he blame himself? He was only following God's will.
"W." seems content to skim the surface of conventional wisdom. You wish it could have explored the connection between Bush's alcoholism and his born-again Christianity with some depth or curiosity: what addicts and born-agains share is a terror of ambiguity, an absolute need for a belief system that removes all doubt. "W." treats Bush's conversion with respect, but offers little illumination of this soulaltering turn in the road. "W." might have had some impact had it been made four years ago. But it's both too late and too early for a movie about our sitting president. Its "outrageousness" feels complacent. Controversial? Daring? In the fall of 2008, it seems neither.
'W.' opens in theaters today.