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STUDIO: Lions Gate
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes
• Audio Commentary with director Oliver Stone
• Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Legacy
• Theatrical Trailer
• DVD-ROM: W Filmmakers’ Research and Annotations Guide
Let’s get the damning Bush biopic out of the way now before some other director gets his retroactive beer goggles on 20 years from now and makes some poofy, softball piece of crap called “The Decider”.
Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Toby Huss, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Jeffery Wright, Thandie Newton.
Biopic on the life of George W. Bush, asking the question of how a trust fund baby from Texas found himself as the leader of the free world, and the price he pays for doing so.
“Now, Mama always said that God was mysterious. He didn’t turn Georgie into a bird that day. Instead, he had the people say that Georgie didn’t have to stay in that white house no more….”
This would easily be one of the funniest, most sardonic films of the last thirty years if only it wasn’t true.
This is more than likely the feeling Oliver Stone and writer Stanley Weiser fully intended to leave us with at the end of W., and the main reason Stone earns a bit of leniency over the rushed nature of the film as a whole. This is the kind of film that could only have been made while the disillusionment of 8 years under the Bush doctrine was still very fresh, but at the same time, the questions of what kind of legacy Bush would be leaving behind were just starting to be asked. W. is the ultimate jumping off point for that question, and it both suffers and is strengthened by the fact that it doesn’t and honestly couldn’t really provide an answer.
It does, however, provide something that really did need to be brought to the forefront before we really start judging Bush’s worst bloopers and practical jokes against the yardstick of history, and that’s a very personal context. And in that sense, the film is a rousing success. If someone were to tell you an Oliver Stone film would be the first place to look if you wanted a sympathetic, humanizing look at George W. Bush, you would point their lying ass to the nearest Betty Ford facility to clean up, and you’d be right to do so. Sure, Stone went to some lengths to try and rationalize Richard Nixon way back when, but that film brought the gavel of judgment down squarely against Tricky Dick in the end. W., on the other hand, ends up really pitying the poor schlub when all’s said and done. Somehow, Oliver Stone successfully translates that relatability so many red staters brought up when they rationalized sending Bush back to the White House in ’04 to the rest of us. In the film, we see the kid who’s pressured by his parents to be something all his life, rejects it to find his own way, but still wants to make mommy and daddy proud. So he does something insane, and succeeds, but finds himself in way over his head, but soldiers on to finish what he started, because that’s the mature thing to do. No matter your background, either you’ve seen that story, you know that story, or even worse, you’re living that story. You just kinda wish, in this case, that kid didn’t get to be President of the United States. Regardless, it takes balls of solid rock to frame a portrait of what of the country’s most divisive presidents in those parameters, and it’s a pretty big check in the film’s favor.
But while the film does its best work dealing with Bush’s motivations and the little events pushing him towards his actions in the White House, it flounders with all the important dramatic beats that a biopic usually hangs its hat upon. It hits the mark fairly well when dealing with Bush Sr., especially the stuff involving Desert Storm, and there’s a scene in the War Room where Dick Cheney (played with full Machiavellian EVIL by Richard Dreyfuss) unveils his master plan for the Middle East that, if it didn’t actually happen, all available evidence points towards the fact that it certainly could’ve, and the mere possibility of that is horrifying, but otherwise, James Brolin’s 100% PERFECT performance plays anchor to a paper thin biopic filled with caricatures and trite snapshots of Bush’s life in and out of the White House as opposed to scenes designed to give any real insight into the man himself as politician. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–Toby Huss, Jeffery Wright, Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Burstyn all manage to project a lot using the very little that the script gives them–but it doesn’t exactly raise the film or the actions of its central character to the heights they should be to be worth the time and effort.
But again, this may be the point. A life led so uncomplicated and unexamined doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of revelations and insight a typical biographical film would pride itself upon. Thing is, Stone and Weiser arguably have a handle on that as well. Case in point: the film has a strange obsession with food throughout it’s running time. It’s a good dramatic tool, really, since food has always been the great equalizer as far as class struggle goes. Here it’s used to make examples, it’s there as an emotional prop in many scenes, and it’s seemingly only through food that Bush Jr. really grasps the magnitude of his actions and the actions of others. The aforementioned War Room scene, Bush kinda shrugs, ignores the holyshitEVIL at work in Dick Cheney’s plan and gives a troop rallying speech to march his soldiers into battle for great justice like he’s John Wayne. But as the war starts to wear down on him, the obvious lack of an exit strategy presents itself, his cabinet reveals themselves to be more and more inept at their jobs, and even with all that, it’s only in the fact that these people are still able to stomach pecan pie while the entire world is falling apart that Dubya truly grasps the enormity of what he’s gotten himself into. It can’t be an accident that while we never see any permutation of the moment where Bush hears about 9/11 while reading to preschoolers, or, really, ANYTHING about 9/11, but Oliver Stone milks Dubya nearly biting the dust by choking on a pretzel for all its worth.
For all its flaws as a film, however, Oliver Stone still manages to make the strongest statement made in eight years about the man we call W. And it’s not through the scenes of W. floating through life as a shiftless ex-frat boy, or the rambling press conference where Brolin stumbles and struggles trying to find the vocabulary to *not* say that mistakes were made, or the scenes of Bush just wanting to make Daddy proud, and dreaming about Daddy calling him on his failure, or in Bush being manipulated by his cabinet several times over and only waking up to the fact after bearing witness to the most sinister use of pie since Spider-Man 3. No, he does it in about a minute’s time, right at the end of the film, where we see a ready and eager Bush, in right field at a baseball game, getting ready to catch an easy fly ball, the ball never coming, and Bush just staring off into space, confused, bewildered, and for an infinite, pregnant moment, completely out of his element. It’s an elegant, whimsical, but strong statement on the matter, one that leaves the empathy up to the audience, but it’s an intellectual “Tag, you’re it!” for the audience, tacked onto two hours of hurried and muddled musing. The question of “Was it worth it?” is really for time to decide, and that applies to both the president, and the film.
“Something, something DARK SIDE. Something, something COMPLETE…”
Video and audio are both solid, though obviously, it’s not going to be anyone’s demo disc for their new home theater. Feature-wise, Oliver Stone’s commentary is dry, but moves at a brisk pace, and he keeps the information and insight flowing. Again, there’s this tone of sympathy for Bush throughout, both Bushes as a matter of fact. One gets the sense that Stone’s exhausted his righteous indignation off-camera, while the mics are off, and is now just in the process of figuring out why all these things have happened. It makes the film and his commentary more interesting and unique as a result, really.
For those looking for their righteous indignation, though, look no further than the “Dangerous Dynasty” documentary. Written and Directed by Oliver Stone’s son, it’s a collection of interviews with leftist historians, analysts, and commentators basically filling in all the gaps the movie leaves behind of the practical and very real political screwjob the Bush administration has left us with over the years. Not new information for anyone with working eyes and/or ears the last 8 years, but it’s there for those who need a refresher course.
The best feature on the disc is the Filmmaker’s Annotation and Research Guide, which is a 100 page comprehensive rundown of every scene in the film, its basis on real events, sources for specific quotes, links to the real versions of speeches given in the film, and elaboration on scenes created just for the film. It’s a perfect companion piece to the film. The problem? It’s a DVD-ROM feature; more specifically, a PDF file saved on the DVD. In this day and age, there’s no reason for this to not have been an actual, browsable feature on the disc besides Lions Gate being lazy, especially when there’s only an 18 minute documentary taking up any extra space on the disc. Still, if you’re willing to deal with the hassle, it’s a gold mine of information. There’s also, apparently, deleted scenes and an interview with Oliver Stone on the Blu-Ray, but despite the extra space, those aren’t here either, in a continuing laziness motif.
7.5 out of 10