Can't Get Fooled Again
2008 // USA // Oliver Stone // November 4, 2008 // Theatrical Print
D - A schizophrenic, lumbering cartoon, Oliver Stone's W. is not the biopic George W. Bush deserves. Regardless of how much I might loathe the (now lame duck) President and everything he stands for, a figure of such geopolitical and cultural significance begs for evaluation and synthesis. Ideally, a comprehensive and articulate cinematic examination of Dubya will one day emerge. Sadly, what Stone delivers, in the twilight of Bush's presidency, is an aimless, tone-deaf, patchwork greatest-hits compilation with virtually no insight save the most facile. (Did you know Dubya hates his Poppy?) There's a sense of sheepish playfulness in Josh Brolin's lead performance, but it's consciously a part of the performance, and never a facet of the Dubya that Stone aims to present. Brolin's most engaging scenes are little more than party tricks, and surrounding him are two shapeless, pointless hours, eight years of bad dreams squashed into a Play-Doh blob.
There are no shortage of fascinating questions swirling around the personage of George W. Bush. Stone might have approached his subject from a historical or sociological angle, wrestling with how an alcoholic C-student and perpetual fuck-up could become the leader of the Free World. Instead, Stone tackles Bush as a psychological puzzle, striving to discern what makes the man tick. Unfortunately, the director renders Bush in such shallow strokes—and with such a yearning for smug chuckles—that W.'s gestures toward complexity create only disconnected caricatures. When Bush loses his Congressional race to an evangelical good-ol'-boy, he fumes, petulant and weepy, vowing that no one will "out-Christian" him again. Okay: Bush the cynical, entitled power-monger. Then Stone gives us an earnest scene of religious rapture as Bush prays fervently with his minister, complete with beatific light streaming through the stained-glass windows. Now: Bush the vulnerable religious seeker. Which is it? Both, of course, but Stone makes zero attempt to syncretize these personas. He simply exhibits them, like freaks in formaldehyde, and then moves on to new grotesque wonders. Granted, there's often a cleverness to the presentation. During his hazing at Yale, Bush dazzles his fraternity by remembering the names of forty brothers by sight, a feat that hints at his famed affection for nicknames and offers the throwaway line: "Look at the brain on this one!" However, the scene reveals nothing about Bush's character. It's just another patch on the crazy quilt that Stone is feverishly stitching.
The only narrative that emerges is frustratingly simplistic: Dubya covets the attention that his father showers on younger brother Jeb. On this score W. at least presents some lithe drama, as when Stone captures a notorious drunken quarrel between father and son. Elsewhere, the film's more fanciful approach to Bush's Oedipal problems seem downright ludicrous, as in Dubya's nightmares about catching a fly ball or—I kid you not—boxing his father in the Oval Office. It's Bush biopic as envisioned by a high school creative writing class. Most vexing of all, W. simply doesn't seem to have any strong feelings about Bush, and in late 2008 that's just not credible. The most divisive figure of the twenty-first century demands something more than gentle mockery and sympathy. To his credit, Brolin's performance is skillful, the sort of loose mimicry (rather than an impersonation) that the portrayal of a sitting President demands. His Bush is all drawling charm and slumping scoffs, punctuated with flashes of desperation and pure scorpion mean. We can see that Brolin is having fun, and that's part of the problem: He's not portraying Bush so much as he's an actor in a Bush suit. This winking remove crushes any pathos that might have emerged, leaving Brolin to stand around and try to salvage some satirical guffaws.
Stone fails to enforce on his cast a unified approach to their portrayals, a disastrous abdication that proves utterly disorienting and emblematic of W.'s unstable tone. Example: The lanky, flint-faced James Cromwell portrays George H.W. Bush as if he were, well, James Cromwell. Thandie Newton, meanwhile, grimaces through a Condoleezza Rice impersonation that might have walked out of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Either approach might have been tenable--well, maybe the former--but both? The juxtaposition just invites tittering. It's like watching David Mamet and Seth MacFarlane collaborate on a stage adaptation of the Bush home movies. Predictably, the result is neither serious nor funny. In a sea of mostly opaque and silly performances, only Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney stand out. Banks delivers a low-key, credible portrayal, one that convinces us of the First Lady's natural affinity for compassion and grace behind the Stepford mask. Dreyfuss, meanwhile—perhaps sensing that he's been cast in a ensemble nightmare—goes for the throat and gives us Darth Cheney. Menacing and ruthless, he draws the eye and the ear whenever on-screen, speaking openly about American empire with the hungry look of a Luciferian colonial despoiler. (There is no good in him, I can feel it.)
Due to its focus on Bush's relationship to his father, W. skips over vast swathes of Bush's life: the Air National Guard, his governorship, the presidential elections, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and on and on. These exclusions might be necessary given Stone's approach, and W. doesn't claim to be a definitive George W. Bush biopic. Nonetheless, the gnawing absence of so many significant elements reminded me of a student's haphazard class notes, spotted with blanks and misspellings (literally in this case). This in turn lends an awkward, half-assed aura to the story, like a last-minute history project. Add to this the flimsiness of Stone's thesis—familial angst explains the trajectory of Bush's life—and one gets the unfortunate sense that someone should have razed W. to the ground and started over.