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W /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Richard Dreyfuss

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Produced by: Moritz Borman, Bill Block
Written by: Stanley Weiser
Distributor: Lionsgate

     At no point during its cumbersome 131 minutes does Oliver Stone’s W. prove much more about President George W. Bush than that he’s nearly impossible to make an objective movie about at this point in history. But perhaps I’m just saying that because it’s equally impossible for any politically-savvy viewer to objectively judge an attempt.


     Watching W., I repeatedly felt that Stone had missed the mark in terms of Bush’s personality. It came across to me that Stone was blinded by his own perception of the man’s foreign-policy—disastrous, arrogant, and imperialistic—and that he wrongly allowed this to cloud his view of Bush’s personal life. The president I’ve watched for the last eight years is a charmingly cocky individual who was re-elected largely because Middle-Americans were sympathetic to his homegrown demeanor. Stone, on the other hand, represents Bush’s life as one of raging alcoholism, angry father-son conflicts, and cluelessness in the White House. Downright lies, I thought to myself as I witnessed them unfold on celluloid.


     But then I began to mull over W. as days passed after the press screening. I posted my thoughts about the movie on a few online discussion forums and the response I got was more illuminating than anything I saw in Stone’s film itself. I had back-and-forths with liberals who can’t even comprehend how one could find Bush relatable, let alone likable.


     And then it hit me. The problem with W. is not that it undoubtedly gets some of the facts wrong on Bush’s life, it’s that it does so within the structure of a biopic. In telling their story in straight-laced biography form, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser have put a movie in front of audiences that audiences must take as an article of objective record. The result is laughable in that many of its assertions about its subject are entirely improvable.


     Had Stone presented his film in a more experimental structure, its discrepancies would have been more forgivable. Whether you like Bush or not, there’s no doubting that history has yet to judge him as a president—he’s not even out of Office yet, for goodness sake—and as a result absolute objectivity regarding he and his Administration is not ascertainable. The closest thing to truth that Stone and Weiser could have achieved would have been a product that showed Bush through each of the many personas he takes on for different people with different perceptions of modern politics and history. Poster Joel over at Living in Cinema suggested to me that the movie could’ve only accomplished this by presenting Bush in the same fractured manner that Todd Haynes did Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. I think he’s right.


     Or Stone could’ve simply waited ten or twenty years to make W. But he didn’t want to do that because he saw the (misguided) opportunity to use the film to influence the 2008 presidential election in favor of Barack Obama. This fact is indisputable given that production was rushed and completed in a mere nine months (unheard of for such a high-profile project) to ensure a pre-election release and that the movie prominently features archival footage of Obama-rival John McCain applauding a no-longer-favorably-received speech Bush delivered on the Senate-floor.


     The rushed nature of the project also brings up another big issue related to its lack of objectivity: it settles for a hard-left-talking-points version of Bush’s Presidency. Because their subject cannot yet be viewed through a lens of historical absolutism, Stone and Weiser settle for the version of the events portrayed that best supports their personal political persuasions. This would be fine if the context was more subjective and/or experimental. But the pair defies the established standard of objectivity for a biopic when it attempts to suggest that Bush provably went into Iraq for oil, knew there were no WMDs before the invasion, and was a victim to the iron-fist of Cheney on just about every foreign-policy-related decision. More disturbing is the fact that uninformed audiences like the one I sat through the film with will blindly accept all of these assertions as fact.


     Stone and Weiser make even lower blows, like their subtle but outrageous suggestion that Bush may have taken drinking back up after many years of sobriety when he found out that Iraq wasn’t going so well. Or that the Bush cabinet prays in a dumbfound manner after every policy meeting (this is presented as metaphor, but still…). Or that Bush’s reason for running for Public Office in the first place was to compete with brother Jeb for his father’s respect. Bullshit.


     Yes, I will confess, it’s probably true that Stone honestly believes everything he has put in the W. But mere belief in the material didn’t mean it was right to include it in a film he intended to market as an objective assessment of Bush. Again I return to the suggestion that the picture should’ve been made in a different style, although Stone would probably arrogantly feel that this change would’ve sucked the veracity out of his various indictments of the President.


     Even with all of the aforementioned condemnable features at work throughout its duration, W. still manages to be a rather dull movie. This is because Stone operates off of an incredibly generic laundry-list of left-skewing ideas about the Bush Presidency. For a picture that exceeds two hours, it’s amazing how glib W. is. The film covers all of the highlights of Bush’s first term, but it shows the viewer nothing they couldn’t hear in recordings of Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown”. (Those looking to expand their thoughts on Bush while watching the film will find themselves out of luck.) Other than Iraq, the movie’s main focus is a re-occuring near-“Saturday Night Live”-impersonation-style portrayal of Bush Cabinet meetings. Instead of getting to the meat of Bush’s initial election and re-election or his stances on issues separate from foreign policy—apparently Stone didn’t have the foresight to realize that the U.S. economy would tank and that looking into Bush’s role in this would be a worthy cinematic pursuit—Stone seems more content in indulging Thandie Newton’s ability to talk like Condoleeza Rice and Richard Dreyfuss’ take on Cheney’s famous grimace. Shall I return to my suggestion for Stone regarding experimentalism or have I hammered it home enough already?


     I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t good things about the movie. There are, even though they are admittedly few and far between. For starters, one would be hard-pressed to find a better actor than Josh Brolin to play Bush and, despite the ineptitude of the material, Brolin achieves a solid mix of impersonation and interpretation. Also, W.’s technical qualities are marvelous for those of a project completed in only nine months. (Phedon Papamichael’s distinguished cinematography is particularly worth nothing.) But the picture on the whole is largely boring, isn’t thought-provoking, settles for a disappointingly glib assessment of its controversial anti-hero, and makes quite a few unfair accusations. There’s no excuse for these flaws, even if the only two scenarios under which they could’ve been fixed were if Stone had taken a radically different stylistic approach or if he had waited awhile to make the film.


     I wish I could say to count W. as an ambitious failure, but calling the picture ambitious would be giving it too much credit. Then again, you could look at a review written by a critic who agrees with Stone and likely find yourself reading about an entirely different movie. Such is the subjective nature of sociopolitical bias.


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 10.18.2008

Screened on: 10.14.2008 at the Landmark in West Los Angeles, CA.


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