Good acting doesn’t bail out lackluster script in ‘W.’


By merely watching the previews for Oliver Stone’s new film “W.,” one could easily assume it is a one-sided critical skewing of the 43rd President of the United States. And in a bitterly fought election rife with partisan attack ads, this kind of movie would be perfectly timed.

However, the film stays surprisingly centered in an, at times, almost sympathetic portrayal of George W. Bush.

Oliver Stone fans looking for high-budget, grandiose cinematography and holier-than-thou viewpoints on hot-button pop culture issues will likely be disappointed, as will those who pride themselves as armchair political pundits and historians who have been following the Bush presidency.

The haste of throwing this film together to time-up with the upcoming election was brilliant marketing, but the overall result falls well short of Stone’s ambition.

Though the film is based on public documents and fact-checking according to Stone – something that usually is welcomed in a biopic – the fact-based nature of “W.” severely handcuffs the story line. Because
of the unprecedented decision to make a movie about a President while he is still in office, the story comes across as a rough draft of sorts.

Stone made “JFK” and “Nixon” long after each president’s term in the White House, which allowed him access to declassified documents and public and private accounts of the individuals as years went by.

Fortunately for Stone, the disadvantages of working with a limited picture of the overall story were overshadowed by a few brilliant acting performances.

Josh Brolin is borderline Oscar-worthy as George W. Bush without cheaply parodying his voice and mannerisms in a low-brow Frank Caliendo manner. Though Brolin is by no means a dead-ringer in his visual resemblance to the president, he does an excellent job of immersing himself in the role in a way that feels genuine.

That is to say, if someone had only read about Bush in historical documents and never seen him, the portrayal would be right on the mark.

Veteran Richard Dreyfuss does a bang-up job channeling “Dr. No” as Vice President Dick Cheney. Always lurking in the shadows and ready to plant ideas in the often naïve president’s head, “Vice,” as he is affectionately referred to by Bush  throughout the movie, is almost like a wax-figure representation of the real Cheney.

Other memorable performances are turned in by James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush, who doesn’t play up the tone of voice or looks of the elder Bush, but captures his patrician nuances perfectly, and Toby Jones, who is so convincing as the calculating and diligent Karl Rove that he could trade places with the real Rove and no one would notice.

Scott Glenn’s portrayal of Donald Rumsfeld, Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice and Jeffery Wright as Colin Powell are all nothing to write home about. Elizabeth Banks’ treatment on Laura Bush is adequate, but serves mainly to offset and be supportive of his often boorish and act-first, think-later mentality.

Ellen Burstyn is solid, but underutilized as Barbara Bush, and garners laughs in her reaction to her son’s ascent up the political ladder: “Governor of Texas? You must be joking!”

Along with this quip, there are numerous points of humor throughout the movie: Bush choking on a pretzel, a fraternity hazing sequence from the president’s days at Yale, the fact that Bush talks while he chews and picks his teeth, and especially in his first meeting with future wife Laura, where his response (“Uh-oh”) to finding out she is a librarian is priceless.

However, the quote of the film comes when Bush vows “I’ll never be out-Texas-ed or out Christian-ed again!”

The behind-the-scenes post-Sept. 11 meeting at the beginning of the film is also a highlight, as members of the cabinet argue over what to call threats abroad, eventually settling on “Axis of Evil.”

Stone unfortunately struggles to expound upon these real events, relying on viewers to draw their own conclusions while giving them little to chew on. Dream sequences and flashbacks to different points in Bush’s life from a dimwitted scoundrel to President of the United States are sprinkled throughout the film to varying levels of success.

But the film, in the end, does little more than  magnify how a father-son relationship is the foundation and reason for the current climate of national politics. Stone seems to take us all for rubes, as if we all got caught napping at the switch during the past two elections and are afraid to admit it.

Then again, maybe he’s on to something.

Email Jason Yurgartis at [email protected]