Some advanced press on Oliver Stone’s W. suggested it might be a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of our sitting president. Hardly! George W. Bush is drunk for half the movie, and things only get worse when he trades the bottle for the Bible. That’s when he really goes nuts.
In Stone’s take on the beleaguered 43rd president, Bush is not portrayed as deliberately evil (that would be Dick Cheney, portrayed satanically by Richard Dreyfuss). In this movie, Bush (played all too realistically by Josh Brolin) is evil by default. He’s a charismatic simpleton who eventually becomes president due to some big daddy issues and an unwavering desire to get out of his brother’s shadow. Whether or not you find this portrayal sympathetic or evil, Stone’s movie isn’t a warm “hug out” for the outgoing president. It’s a swift kick in the ass, sorry-to-have-met-ya, now-get-the-hell-out-of-here middle finger to the man’s face.
The film starts off with Bush and his crew discussing the “Axis of Evil.” It then goes on a whirlwind tour of his life, from his fraternity hazing days, through his realization that Iraq had no real weapons of mass destruction. The story is told in no particular order, but many of the scenarios are familiar, like Bush’s infamous date with a pretzel in his throat, and his ill-advised “Mission Accomplished!” landing on an aircraft carrier.
Brolin’s performance goes well beyond impersonation, capturing the charisma that brought Bush to the highest office in the world, along with the incompetence that has gotten him tagged as one of the worst presidents in history. Most brutal is Brolin’s depiction of Bush in a painful press conference, getting blindsided by a reporter’s question and struggling to articulate an answer. The scariest thing about the moment is just how close to reality it is.
Dreyfuss gets his first really meaty role in many a year as Cheney, capturing the man’s physicality (including that crooked smile). There are great moments when Cheney pipes up during a cabinet meeting, and Bush basically bitch-slaps him, calling him “Vice” and reminding him who “the decider” is. Dreyfuss plays these moments with a vicious anger boiling beneath the surface, as if he’s ready to whip out a switch and give the little whipper-snapper the what-for.
James Cromwell does a nice job capturing the deceptive charms of the elder George Bush. Disgusted by his son’s behavior in early adulthood, his confused and muddled look gives us an idea of where the younger Bush got his own pained squint. Toby Jones captures the evil slickness of Karl Rove, and Scott Glenn has some good times as an oblivious Donald Rumsfeld. I especially like a moment when he giddily eats pecan pie as a meeting room discusses the early tribulations of the Iraq War.
Jeffrey Wright, although not at all like Colin Powell physically, is typically good as a lone voice of reason who eventually acquiesces because it’s his job to do so. The film’s worst performance belongs to Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. She plays her as a mumbling, scared, shrewish woman, inaudible and afraid of eye contact. That’s not the Condoleezza Rice I’ve observed.
I suppose the film lacks the “depth” of other Stone movies about presidents, like JFK and Nixon because the movie does speed through Bush’s life. It certainly skips over some major events, such as the 2000 election. You can check out HBO’s recent Recount for an interesting dramatic treatment of that calamity.
As for the somewhat shallow vibe of the film, I’m thinking it’s a deliberate choice to depict how this man lacks a certain depth. I like the sometime vacuous feel of the movie; I think it is not only intentional, but also completely appropriate. To depict Bush with depth would be to reward him in a way, and Stone’s film has no intentions of giving the man a gold star.