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Dustin Putman

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W.  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Oliver Stone.
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton, Stacey Keach, Bruce McGill, Jeffrey Wright, Ioan Gruffudd, Colin Hanks, Jason Ritter, Rob Corddry, Noah Wyle, Marley Shelton, Jesse Bradford, Jonathan Breck.
2008 – 131 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for language including sexual references, and for brief disturbing images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 15, 2008.
Making a biopic of President of the United States George W. Bush before he has even left office is questionable, at best, and a cheap ploy to become "flavor of the month" material, at worst. Not enough time has passed—actually, no time has passed—to give a full perspective of Bush's life and the concrete mark he will have on history. Because of this, and because, also, director Oliver Stone (2006's "World Trade Center") rushed the film into production in order to meet the planned pre-election 2008 release date, "W." could have been an unmitigated disaster, a spoof rather than a fair treatment of its human subject. The good news is that "W." isn't bad at all. In fact, it is a decidedly evenhanded depiction of the President. The problem, then, is that it is rushed, choppy and lacks an ending.

Following a prologue set at a 2002 meeting where, in the wake of 9/11, the term "axis of evil" was coined, "W." journeys back to Bush Jr.'s (Josh Brolin) early years, from his wild days at Yale going through a fraternity hazing, to his inability to hold down a job, to his rocky relationship with his disapproving father (James Cromwell), to his out-of-control boozing that led him to experience a spiritual awakening and become "born-again." The timeline swirls forward at lightning speed, portraying his meet-cute with future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks), his failed run for Congress in Texas, his help with his father's Presidential campaign, and his ultimate path to becoming the U.S. President himself.

Although there is an abbreviated portrayal of Dubya's first term in the White House, director Oliver Stone opts to end the film in 2004, soon after he has made a mess out of things and publicly announced his plan (which would not reach fruition) to start pulling troops from Iraq, manipulatively orchestrated right before his reelection. "W." is not uninteresting—that much can be said—but one has to wonder why it was made at this moment in time. In ten or fifteen years, it could have been wrought into a tightly conceived, more expansive epic. As of right now, it is but a curiosity piece rather than a satisfying narrative, hitting on key events while also frustratingly leaving a lot out. Stone relies on the viewer's knowledge to fill in the gaps, which is all well and good in the present, but it keeps the picture from holding any substantive longevity for future generations.

The most surprising aspect of "W." is its overall sympathetic view of George W. Bush. Always yearning for his father's approval while simultaneously being haunted by the constant shadow he was placed in next to brother Jeb, George is seen as a man with undeniable "daddy issues." At the same time, he had pretty much everything handed to him on a silver platter—when he announces that he was accepted into Harvard Business School, Bush Sr. makes it known that he pulled some strings—and used these connections to become the leader of the country without the credentials or the know-how to back it up. His administration, from Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), to Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), come together in scenes where their well-meaning ways could not preclude their ineptitude in making rash decisions and handling world affairs. Among them, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is the only one who looks to have any common sense. When he logically questions their decision to invade Iraq, they react to him as if he were speaking a foreign language.

Late in the proceedings, George W. Bush privately confides in Laura and wonders aloud if he has made the right decisions and whether or not he can regain the trust of the American people. This moment helps to humanize him in a way that the earlier scenes where he womanizes and recklessly drunk drives cannot. He was never an ideal choice to run the country, but there is an "aw shucks" charm about him that helped to pull the wool over the eyes of those who trusted in him back in 2000, and again in 2004. The film leaves the viewer considering the price that we all must now pay, but does not necessarily sling the blame onto any one person.

With the possible exception of Thandie Newton (2008's "Run Fatboy Run"), hilarious in her turn as Condoleezza Rice, the actors succeed in avoiding caricatures and simple imitations of their real-life counterparts. While there are physical resemblances between them, few of them are truly able to disappear into their roles. As W., Josh Brolin (2007's "No Country for Old Men") is better than most of the skit impersonators out there because he treats the man he is playing with a fairness and open mind. He is quite good. As Bush Sr. and First Lady Laura, James Cromwell (2007's "Spider-Man 3") and Elizabeth Banks (2008's "Meet Dave") are the biggest stretches, looks-wise. Cromwell plays the elder Bush as caring, but a bit domineering and skeptical of his son's worth. Banks is instantly charismatic as Laura, but virtually vanishes from the second half. George's and Laura's twin daughters Jenna and Barbara are passingly glimpsed as children in a photograph, but otherwise are nowhere to be seen. As previously noted, there is a lot missing from this biopic that might have helped to paint a fuller picture of the President.

"W." is fine for what it is—a snapshot of an ill-equipped man who rose to power—but the film doesn't really offer any new information or insights. Director Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser simply run through a laundry list of true-life happenings and try to replicate them. They do a serviceable job of this, but that is all it is. Since George W. Bush's life story is far from finished, what is the point?
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman