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W., T. F.

MOVIE REVIEW
W. (2008)

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Sidney Ray Baldwin/Lionsgate

Managing to release a biopic on a sitting-duck president mere weeks ahead of Election Day would be a respectable directorial accomplishment any year. That Oliver Stone has released a biopic about this president in this year – the year of a categorically historical American presidential campaign following an abysmal administration – is truly remarkable. Unfortunately, that’s one of the very few remarkable things about "W."

The film is not bad per se; but quite frankly, it lacks the vigor and intensity of the real political atmosphere surrounding it. And with a subject as conflict-rich as President Bush, one expects an explosive, politically provocative film – or, at the very least, an incisive, rousing portrait. Certainly something that inspires more than an audience’s quick, quiet shuffle out of the theater when it’s over. It’s a popcorn film for the politico.

"W." is not without its enjoyable parts. Josh Brolin delivers a wonderful performance as the man behind the initial – perhaps even Oscar-worthy, as his ability to transform some of President Bush’s most caricatured mannerisms into organically endearing qualities borders on genius. That he, above all, manages to transcend the simplified, clownish President Bush we know from YouTube and political cartoons is incredible in itself. That he also presents us with an identifiable Texas man in turmoil to root for, regardless of political persuasion, gives this film it raison d’être.

Mr. Stone surrounds Mr. Brolin’s centerpiece with a wreath of talent as the Bush family. Elizabeth Banks gives life to the reserved Laura Bush, not often found in the spotlight of the press. Ellen Burstyn puts Barbara Bush’s pointed public person into her role as a wife and mother. And the talented James Cromwell plays the staid, stern George H. W. Bush to Mr. Brolin’s Jr., the duo carefully cultivating the tense father-son relationship the two Bush men are rumored to have. This familial sphere – for Mr. Stone, the nexus of the younger Bush’s inner-turned-outward turbulence – really propels the film, despite the director’s professions that this is a film about why we went to war with Iraq.

Regrettably, the rest of the supporting cast has trouble rising above mere caricature of the influential figures they represent. Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell feel as if they were pared right off of a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch; Stephen Colbert’s ultra-conservative persona has more depth than Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld. Toby Jones’s Karl Rove plays on an incredibly simplistic notion of homoerotica between Mr. Bush and his “brain man,” and Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Cheney is so sinister as to become almost comical – considering he would probably seem more at home in "Saw."

Of course, these shortcomings have much to do with the nearly insurmountable challenge of realistically portraying real people – not to mention that these are people the American public has lived with practically daily via their TV screens for at least the past seven years. And together with the formidable challenge of breaking down well-rooted Bush stereotypes thoroughly enough to make possible a non-satirical feature film about the president, slicing through over-familiarity to offer more well-rounded representations of our recent leaders probably would not have been possible. But the near-satirical, one-dimensional representations of these key characters points to the essential trouble with "W."

The fundamental problem with Mr. Stone’s study of our 43rd president is its comprehensive political even-handedness. The film works so hard not to fall on either side of the aisle that it comes up politically lifeless – a strange fate for a film by a director whose political reputation often outshines his professional one. The clunky recitation of events during Mr. Bush’s first years in office feels as painfully empty as (according to this film) Mr. Cheney’s soul.

For all of the nuances that Stanley Weiser’s script misses when it comes to the White House, it weaves Dubya’s personal life into a finely grained portrait of a troubled man. Ultimately – and ironically, given its very deliberate timing – this is more a film about family politics than social politics. Nevertheless, "W." will undoubtedly have some bearing on the impending election – what exactly that might be remains to be seen.

W.

Opens on Oct. 17 in the United States and on Nov. 7 in Britain.

Directed by Oliver Stone; written by Stanley Weiser; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Julie Monroe; music by Paul Cantelon; production designer, Derek Hill; produced by Bill Block, Eric Kopeloff, Paul Hanson and Moritz Borman; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), James Cromwell (George H. W. Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), Bruce McGill (George Tenet), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice) and Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell).

Comments

Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men... over all, i don't doubt that 'W.' will have the effect Oliver Stone desired

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