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Film Review: W (15)

Stuart Ian Burns says good intentions aren't enough, after watching Oliver Stone's take on the yesterday man

Published on November 9th 2008.

Film Review: W (15)

FOR better or worse, director Oliver Stone’s career obsession is taking morally ambiguous figures and justifying their weaknesses in an ongoing attempt to claim our sympathy.

Natural Born Killers Mickey and Mallory are a product of a media-obsessed society he suggests, just as Gordon Gecko is reaction to a financial system infatuated with power and profit. It’s rare that he offers clear cut stories of heroism; even Jim Garisson’s fixation with the truth about JFK’s assassination (or, in that case, Stone’s version of it) led to marital problems.

If Stone succeeds
in his intention
to show how an
average man in
a dynastic family
gains the capacity
to become president,
he botches the pacing as scene upon scene drags on well after a point has been scored

In W, Stone chooses to portray the present president of the United States as a man who sought the highest office in that land in a desperate attempt to make his father proud of him - and, latterly, stage the invasion of Iraq to complete the job he perceives his old man was too weak to handle.

Along with his director, writer Stanley Weiser (whose previously work includes a TV biopic of Rudy Giuliani) is clearly directly linking Bush with the subject of his earlier film, Nixon, suggesting two commanders-in-chief whose emotional problems sprang from difficult adolescences and parental disapproval.

As with that dissection into an unpopular man in the Oval Office, W uses a flashback structure as the decision to go to war in Iraq is threaded through incidents from Bush’s past. We greet a restless jock endlessly bored with the jobs his dad provides for him, who, after years fighting the bottle, eventually finds both a wife and God and decides to run for office.

Throughout, the focus remains on the President, only rarely showing the reactions of his father or political advisors as his decisions have a very real effect on his family and the world.

It falls to journeyman actor Josh Brolin to fill Dubya’s shoes, and there’s little doubt he offers the performance of his career.

In the kind of role which has already been extensively parodied, Brolin does not take the relatively easy approach of simple imitation and, instead, seeks to find a psychologically realistic

presentation of the private face of a man dogged by public gaffes, showing that he’s well aware of his weaknesses and why he relies on the likes of political advisor Karl Rove (Toby Jones) to fill in the gaps when his experience or knowledge or personality fall short.

There’s fine support for Brolin, with a cast chock full of character actors stretching into familiar skins and, purely in casting terms, the film’s a winner. Isn’t that Richard Dreyfus as Dick Cheney? Hey, it’s James Cromwell as Bush Senior! Ellen Burstyn as his wife, Barbara; Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld, even if he looks nothing like him.

Best of the bunch are an almost unrecognisable Thandie Newton, drawling away as Condoleezza Rice, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, Dubya’s long suffering wife, the politician’s perfect spouse who continues to love her husband, despite everything, including her own liberal tendencies.

W is a discrete demonstration that sometimes good intentions and careful casting aren’t enough. As Bush’s story unfolds over a leisurely two-and-a-quarter hours, it’s a curiously uninvolving experience.

If Stone succeeds in his intention to show how an average man in a dynastic family gains the capacity to become president, he botches the pacing as scene upon scene drags on well after a point has been scored. Also the advertising for this film (which depicts Brolin praying or holding his head in his hands), suggests that this is supposed to be a comedy drama: It’s neither that funny or particularly dramatic, as though Stone set out to make a satire but somewhere in the process decided upon a more sympathetic touch.

It’s in the “contemporary” scenes that the film most loses focus. While there’s little doubt that the Iraq conflict has become the defining moment of Bush’s presidency, the discussions which led to the invasion are peculiarly flat and lack any new insights into the motivations for the war, with the exception of Colin Powell’s initial scepticism which was news to me.

Presumably due to budgetary constraints, mere lip service is given to the rich seam of other incidents from the Florida recount to the 9/11 tragedy and onward to Katrina, and though the filmmakers try to keep our interest with some frenetic camera work and inserting our actors into familiar news footage, this ultimately stately and stagy film infuriates more than it entertains.

*W (Dubya) is on general realease

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