Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Starring Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss
Rating: TWO STARS
Where's the Oliver Stone who used to shoot from the lip? No one would accuse him of deep thoughts, but you could usually count on his strong opinions, especially in his Presidential Suite - in JFK, where, digging through the aftermath of that fatal day in Dallas, he discovered conspiracies under every upturned rock; or in Nixon, where, laying the trickster bare, he found Dick Nixon's abiding nemesis in Dick Nixon's riven heart.
But now comes W. (yes, that Dubya), where the subject is a sitting president who's morphed into a lame duck - disparaged domestically, reviled globally, treated as a communicable disease by his own party and winding down an administration that, in its fondness for misguided war and mismanaged debt, is a serious contender as the worst in American history. So little Bush, another shallow thinker with strong views, definitely makes for a big target. Yet maybe that's the problem here. Unsure where to aim or what to hit, Stone appears flummoxed, even flaccid, content to holster his own opinions and recycle others, mainly the tried-but-tepid notion that, hey, Junior has a Daddy complex.
In fairness, the picture is not the cartoon that its trailer would suggest. Quite the opposite. Stone has taken pains to portray Dubya (Josh Brolin) as something more than the functioning moron/grinning puppet of popular liberal belief. How much more? Well, an opening scene shows him heading the 2002 strategy session that coined the "axis of evil" phrase and developed his doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. In Brolin's relatively adroit hands (it's more impression than impersonation), Dubya quickly surfaces as a guy who's shrewd if not smart, possessed of a fine memory if a flawed mind, and readily capable of using his office's authority to both cow and charm the people around him. With a sly twinkle, he can even bully them into "taking a moment" for prayer at the meeting's end. The implication is clear: W. is nobody's fool.
Cue the first flashback and the emerging structure. The film flits between the administration's buildup to the Iraq war and defining moments in the Prez's past, beginning with his days as a Yale undergrad, where (thanks to Brolin's superannuated looks) he seems to be drinking himself into a premature old age. Enter Daddy (James Cromwell), along with a series of hard-partying, womanizing, dissolute scenes all centred on the general theme of, "You deeply disappoint me, Junior." Each time, Junior slinks way, determined to prove "Poppy" wrong and/or to further oil his grievances.
From there, the remaining flashbacks check off the familiar litany of his fall and rise. Dubya meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), then embarks on a losing attempt at a Texas congressional seat ("I'll never be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again," he vows prophetically). Dubya undergoes a conversion on the Damascus road to his 40th birthday, when, hung over during a morning-after jog, he finds God and loses the bottle in one conjoined epiphany. Dubya partners with nerdy Karl Rove (Toby Jones) to boost Daddy's '88 campaign with the infamous Willie Horton ad ("Good work, son, you're earning your spurs now."). And Dubya wins the Texas governorship even as brother Jeb loses in Florida, although Poppy makes even that victory taste ashen ("Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don't you feel good about me?") Oh, Daddy dearest, this is psychodrama as an idée fixe.
Worse, none of it is new, nor is the recycled stuff presented in a newly revealing context. As for his first presidential election, and the way he won it, all that's completely ignored. Instead, the movie keeps returning to the Iraq buildup, as another band of equally familiar principals - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, George Tenet - play out their equally familiar parts. So Tenet is encouraged to cook the WMD intelligence, while Powell is pressured to serve the meal to the UN. Interestingly, as the voice of realpolitik, the devil Cheney gets to tell the unvarnished truth behind the invasion: "Iraq has 10 per cent of the world's oil reserves. They own it, but we'll run it. There is no exit strategy. We stay."
Okay, but after the war goes sour and still no nuclear evidence is found, the same principals are allowed to express their private surprise at the absence. "Where the hell's the WMDs at?" shouts Dubya. "How could our own Intel people completely muff this?" C'mon. Stone is as hypocritical as the administration here, wanting to have it both ways. If the intelligence was contrived, why show the contrivers dismayed at its proven falseness? And if Cheney's reasoning is valid as the primary motivation for war, why not state what everyone is afraid to: that, given the recent investments of Exxon and Shell in the region, and given the fact that every politician, Republican and Democrat alike, supports the continued presence of a "residual force" stationed at permanent American bases, the Iraq war can be considered an oilman's roaring success. But Stone says nothing of this - those once-caustic lips are sealed.
As for the performance/impressions, they range from strong (Richard Dreyfuss does an uncanny Cheney) to bland (Jeffrey Wright's Powell is just middling) to really weird (Thandie Newton seems to have Rice suffering from some crooked spinal disorder). But what's the point of recasting the actual folks to rehash the already documented? Perhaps to get to the film's annoying (no, astonishing) climax, when the director catches up to the now thoroughly unpopular Dubya. Stone first has him confronted by his peeved Poppy in a dream sequence ("You've ruined the Bush name"), then shows him floundering at a real press conference over the question of his legacy ("I'm sure something will pop into my head here.") In this twin tableau, damned if we're not meant to see George W. Bush as a poignant figure, offering him the very empathy that he so singularly lacks. Tell that to the penniless; tell that to the tortured; tell that to the maimed and the dead and the dying - tell them because they're not here, not in a single frame, to speak for themselves.