While it doesn’t quite live up to the controversy surrounding it, Oliver Stone’s W. is still a fairly good film. It marks a departure from much of Stone’s previous historically based movies, in that it’s a mostly accurate depiction of events that really did happen. The film alternates in perspective between George W. Bush’s formative years, starting when he’s in college, and his first term in office as president. Stone, whose other presidential films JFK and Nixon were rather long-winded (both clock in at over three hours), shows considerably more restraint in W. by only focusing on specific moments of emotional upheaval for the young Bush.
Stone’s portrayal of Bush is surprisingly sympathetic. Bush has real, human motivations in this movie, and they’re not quite what the more cynical among us might expect. Josh Brolin plays the part extremely well, and you can’t help but like the character even when he’s acting out of utter ignorance. This may be the first time ever that someone has actually played the part of Bush, rather than simply playing a caricature of him.
Although Stone tries to boil down Bush’s life into a quest for the approval of his father (James Cromwell) a few times too many, he makes it clear that Bush (or, at least, his version of Bush) truly does believe in the ideology he claims to stand for. This can be seen no better than in a gripping war room scene – my favorite scene in the film, actually – in which the president and his cabinet discuss their plans for Iraq. While Vice President Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, in a brilliant performance) rambles on about needing to gain control of the Middle East’s oil reserves, Bush is concerned only with “freedom” and the spread of democracy. W.’s supporting cast really shines in this scene, with the rivalry between Cheney and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) being especially interesting to watch.
In fact, most of the cast give excellent performances throughout the entire movie, and I would not be surprised to see Cromwell, Wright, and especially Dreyfuss receive award nominations next year. It’s not all perfect, though. Thandie Newton’s grating portrayal of Condoleezza Rice is easily the worst part of the movie, and most of the time it seems as though she’s just walked out of a bad SNL skit. She doesn’t have many lines, thankfully, but she’s terrible enough that her presence in and of itself was enough to damage my overall opinion of the movie.
W. functions well overall, though, partly because Stone doesn’t gum up the works with a bunch of far-out, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories – in fact, most of the events in the movie are pretty well documented in real life. Some have complained that the movie glosses over such notable events as the 2000 presidential election and the specifics of Bush’s conversion to evangelical Christianity, but the fact is that they’re largely unimportant to the story being told. Stone’s sympathetic representation of Bush makes it clear that W. isn’t meant to be just a historical chronicle of Bush’s life; it’s Stone’s attempt at rationalizing what has happened to America in the last eight years.
In this light, the claims of some critics that the film was made “too early” or even “too late” seem ridiculous. W. relies on its audience being of the time when it takes place – the present – for its rhetorical message to function most effectively. It’s hard to tell whether W. will stand the test of time, as it seems doubtful that it will elicit the same emotional response from audiences viewing it ten or twenty years from now. For now, however, it is a fitting answer to nearly eight years’ worth of war, economic failure, and wasted frustration with what will surely go down in history as one of the worst American presidencies ever.