If biopics about people who are still alive usually end up being the kiss of death for a movie, perhaps it’s time now to add those presidents still in office to that warning as well. Newly reticent conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone seems to shy away this time around from either controversy or possible lawsuits, as he fleshes out his version of President George Bush as a pampered village idiot manipulated by more fanatical advisers surrounding him.
Playing out like a collection of SNL style skits seemingly mismatched with solemn family drama, rather than a cutting edge satirical or probing dramatic exploration of history or personality, W. is as scattered and unfocused in conception as Bush’s attention deficit disorder world leader seems to be. In effect, Stone’s portrait conveys a peculiar sense of sympathy for George Bush (Josh Brolin) when not engaging in outright benign ridicule, because he’s made to appear as a dim-witted dupe of more sophisticated minds influencing him.
The film veers back and forth between W’s wayward drunken youth to an aimless adulthood and bid to win his rejecting father’s (James Cromwell) admiration by likewise entering politics, and through the inception of the Iraq conflict. In between we’re treated to anecdotal conversations, biographical snapshots with much of that back story spotty or missing, and various presidential comical mouthings real and unreal, such as coining a notion of enemies as ‘axis of weasels,’ and lightening up dreary cabinet meetings by asserting that ‘I don’t do nuances, it’s just not my thing.’
As a young man, W is captured on screen dancing drunk on tables and unable to pronounce the word ‘Presbyterian,’ knocking up a girlfriend that dad arranges to hush up as a perplexed W. insists, ‘But I used a condom!’ And, making the life changing decision to go into the ‘family business’ of politics while boozing in a gambling den.
Evolving from habitual slacker to compulsive snacker – leading up to his famous peanut choking episode – W takes up religion to conquer his drinking demons. while griping about people not being able to understand the burdens of privilege that come with being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. And more concerned with ‘getting out of Poppy’s shadow’ by declaring his own war than making sense of the Iraq crisis before taking action, W allows his advisors to do most of his thinking for him. How weird to imagine that if Bush Sr. had been a more doting dad, we might not be in the quagmire of Iraq right now.
And while audiences may be divided over the treatment of Bush Jr. in the movie, according to whatever their respective political affiliations, Stone presents a take it or leave it given that W is as dumb as he looks, and there’s not a scheming or calculating thing about him. And so Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and others have simply gone ahead to do their own thing, though shown as seriously dedicated about their aims, while manipulating and humoring W along the way. And in effect utilizing him as a prop to keep impressing the public as somebody that ‘Joe Voter wants to sit down and have a beer with.’ At the same time, Condoleeza seems to function most of the time as a token female ornament, when not mothering her boss.
Whether Red State or Blue State, audiences are likely to come away from this movie concurring on dissatisfaction with the image of Bush, while learning little beyond what one already knows. Though the ensemble chemistry is quite vigorous and best when coming off as a satire of itself, and the impersonations are quite funny, in particular Thandie Newton’s bubbleheaded Condie.
Stone does at least deserve credit for zoom-ins on familiar faces engaged in enthusiastic bipartisan Congressional applause, including Biden, Pelosi and Ted Kennedy, when Bush rallies the country to war. Though with his proviso to ‘just make sure that you hit no camels on the ass.’ But then this movie begs the question, who is responsible? W: The Audacity Of Honing Up.