There’s a part of me that wants to forgive everything that’s mediocre or not quite finished about W. by saying it’s designed to be that way, that this is a film about a mediocre and ultimately unfinished man, so the very filmmaking reflects that. But that’s apologetics, not film criticism, and the truth is that W. is a movie that could have benefited from just a little bit more time and a little bit more work. It’s a rushed film, a movie that raced to the finish line so it could be released before the election, and yet despite that, and with all of its faults and problems, W. remains a very good movie, and an often funny and surprising one.
What might be most surprising for a large chunk of the audience is just how sympathetic the film is towards George W. Bush. I’m the kind of dweeb who finds myself wondering what Bush’s historical legacy is going to be, and I think Stone might have nailed it (or at least is having a major hand in shaping it): W. is not a bad man, but he’s not someone who should ever have been near the White House. He’s a shallow yet likable guy with major daddy issues who was in way over his head at the worst possible time. This is Stone’s complete focus, and the complete spine of the movie. W. is not so much a biopic as it is a psychological examination, a way for Stone to look at how George W. Bush’s need to be loved by his father led to the Iraq War.
All of Stone’s ambitions rest on the back of Josh Brolin; that mighty, amazing and almost complicated (as complicated as one can be while portraying a consummately uncomplicated man) performance is the tentpole that lifts everything else up. It’s hard to imagine there even being a W. without Brolin at its center. He alone carries every scene, making up for every stumbling block and the page and the oftentimes caricaturish performances of his co-stars. Brolin as W. tempts you to use words like ‘bravura’ and ‘genius’ – it’s one of the best performances of the decade. He’s not playing it as a joke, or as satire, and unlike Thandie Newton, who is dismally SNL-ish as Condoleeza Rice, he’s not putting on a George W. Bush act. Brolin disappears in to W., going beyond mimicry to the point where it almost seems like he’s taking up residence in the man. Having eerily tapped into the cadences, tones and body language of the president, Brolin then drills for the heart, finding the wounded center of which even W. himself seems to be unaware half the time. This isn’t a nomination performance, this is a winning performance.
Some of Brolin’s co-stars hold their own. Elizabeth Banks works as Laura Bush, but she’s left high and dry by Stanley Weiser’s script, which gives her no depth or even much to do in individual scenes. Richard Dreyfuss holds it back as Dick Cheney, a character too easily played broadly evil; Dreyfuss doesn’t quite humanize the guy, but he also doesn’t make him a simple villain. On the other hand Toby Jones’ Karl Rove is strangely gentle, coming across more like a big nerd and less like the squirming face of evil. Jeffrey Wright, meanwhile, is hit or miss as Colin Powell, with some scenes feeling like he has nailed the character and others like he’s doing a voice. Ellen Burstyn presents a delightfully different side of Barbara Bush – instead of the kindly grandmother we all thought we knew, she’s a tough as nails ball-buster.
But it all comes back to Brolin. Rarely have I seen a movie where the supporting performances are so completely supporting. I would almost say that W. could work as a one man show, but that would mean losing the incredible performance by James Cromwell, playing George H.W. Bush from a completely different angle than Brolin’s W. Where Brolin takes on the mannerisms and characteristics of the president, Cromwell doesn’t ape the father. A hairpiece and (I’m assuming) some subtle make-up give the hints of George Bush Sr, but Cromwell fills in the gaps. George Sr. is the distant figure that George Jr. is always chasing, and the interplay between Brolin and Cromwell is electric. Towering nearly a foot over Brolin, Cromwell manages to get across volumes in just a look.
Even with Brolin’s herculean performance, W. needs more. It’s the least Oliver Stone-feeling Oliver Stone movie to date; a mostly straight-ahead biopic, 98% of W. feels like it could have been directed by anybody. Especially someone without a firm grip on tone, since the movie slips and slides from satire to drama to history pageant like an ice skater hitting a banana peel. The line between comedy and drama in the film is exceptionally thin, and often on purpose – some of the music that Stone uses to score things like war montages is blatantly comical, for instance – but there are points where it seems like Stone doesn’t quite know how to play a scene, so he leaves it up to you to decide if it should be funny or not. Someone once said that the Bush Administration has rendered all satire against it null and void by being living satire, and that problem crops up here. Sure, Bush’s malapropisms are funny, but they’re also patently ridiculous and well-worn. “Is our children learning” is something that Bush actually said, but it’s also a t-shirt slogan at this point, and there’s no way to make it feel natural (although Brolin, who I’m painting as the Jesus Christ of actors in this review, makes it sound natural).
What’s frustrating is the way that Stone plays up the buffoonery of Bush’s advisors and cabinet in the presidential years. The thesis here seems to be that W. is an empty vessel that men like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney were able to use to fulfill their own ambitions, but the movie appears to posit that everybody else in the White House was a comedic incompetent. The film sort of works up a touch of outrage at the end, but by making everybody around Bush into a clown and then backgrounding the two evil puppet masters (a choice I can accept only because the film is almost entirely from W.’s point of view and he surely didn’t/still doesn’t know he was being manipulated), Stone doesn’t leave much room to get mad about anything. Even if he wanted to have us walk out of the theater feeling vaguely sorry for Bush, he could have still given us an outlet for righteous indignation. I don’t doubt that these people were bumbling incompetents, I just doubt how comedic their incompetence was.
While W. functions more as a psychological examination than a biopic, it does have a standard biopic structure (specifically Biopic Structure B, in which the film begins in the ‘present’ and then jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the unfolding of the ‘present’ day story), and I’ve always found biopics dramatically unsatisfying. The biopic can’t present a story but rather is always a series of flashes, important moments cut away from the bigger picture and presented in miniature. That said, what Stone chooses to focus on in these flashes is fascinating and sort of telling: the pretzel choking incident is in the film, but not 9/11. In much the same way that he set the tone for the 90s resurgence of JFK conspiracy interest and the rehabilitation of Richard Nixon’s soul, Stone is consciously setting the tone for the discussion of Bush’s legacy, and he’s denying the man 9/11. On the flip side he also glosses over the 2000 election, but removing 9/11 from the story allows Stone to refocus the Iraq War away from the War on Terror.
There are a couple of Stone flourishes, with occasional cutaways to Bush alone in a baseball stadium being the most explicit. These moments work exceptionally well, and they lead up to a wonderful final scene where Bush, alone in the outfield (far away from his avowed favorite place in the world, center field, which is itself pretty far from home plate, where he’s found himself in real life), loses a ball in the lights and stares confused into space. You could almost skip the preceding 117 minutes of the film and just have it all summed up right there. But if you did you’d miss a flawed but fascinating movie, and most importantly a truly great performance.
In the end I wish that Stone had taken some more time to craft this film. Some feel that there’s no perspective here, that with Bush still in office (and without portraying things like the current fiscal disaster, an outgrowth of Bush’s policies), W. is a movie that can’t make a definitive statement on this presidency. I would certainly agree that it doesn’t, and I would like to see Stone revisit George W. Bush in a couple of years with the 20/20 clarity of hindsight. But what W. does do is begin the discussion of who George W. Bush is. Anyone seeing the exhausted, defeated man talking about bailouts on TV the last two weeks will wish that Stone had given himself a couple more months to get the closure of the administration on the record, but will also see that the man on TV is the obvious outcome of the man on the movie screen.