“W.” MAY sound like the story of the initial that rocked the world, but it turns out to be the tale of a mouse that roared. Director Oliver Stone and writer Stanley Weiser’s unexpected take on the life and times of our 43rd president will surprise a lot of people, especially those not used to seeing the words “Oliver Stone” and “carefully modulated” in the same sentence.
Yes, “W.” is definitely satiric in intent and execution, and it has no love for the actions and policies of the man who has led, as the film’s advertising puts it, “a life misunderestimated.” But those yearning for a red meat entree, a kind of “Natural Born Killers” meets “JFK,” will be disappointed. There is a restraint about “W.” that is both pleasing and effective. There are reasons to smile in this film, but not nearly as many as you’d think. Instead the message is that what has happened to this country is no laughing matter.
Perhaps the crucial reason “W.” succeeds as much as it does is the surprisingly empathetic work of Josh Brolin, the American actor of the moment, in the title role. Against considerable odds, his George Walker Bush is a sympathetic likeness of an apparently sincere individual, someone who seems to mean it when he says, “All I want to do is make it a better and safer world.” Even if Stone had a more savage portrayal in mind, the quality of this performance won’t allow it.
But that sympathy is only part of the story. It’s also the thesis of Weiser’s involving screenplay that Bush is someone completely out of his depth as president, a simple soul open to manipulation because only family connections and the savvy of Karl Rove had gotten him where he is. Someone, in short, who can OK simulated drowning as an interrogation technique after being assured it doesn’t qualify as torture and then say with a nervous chuckle, “Kind of reminds me of my fraternity days.”
What makes Bush the way he is, “W.” posits, is the drive of his life, the desire of the family black sheep to prove himself and get the approval and regard of his distant, patrician father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), the picture of sobriety and rectitude who is forever saying to his son, “You disappoint me, Junior.”
One of the intriguing aspects of this portrayal is that it will likely make ideologues of all stripes unhappy. Bush’s supporters will wince at the notion of an ex-jock who says, “I’m probably the fastest president in history,” while detractors will miss the absence of the smug and destructive arrogance they see in the man, and both sides may say that Bush is smarter than this film gives him credit for being.
But “W.” is not a dispassionate biography; it is an interpretation of personality intersecting with history, and as a piece of drama it is persuasive and perfectly creditable. Its vision of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, of a creature of terrible earnestness overmatched by the situation he’s in, certainly gives Americans something to think about.
It also helps that “W.” is exceptionally well cast with actors who are not only gifted but who also actually look like the people they portray. Richard Dreyfuss makes a fine scheming Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn is a confident Donald “I don’t do nuance” Rumsfeld. And Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice are also on target. First among acting equals is the always involving Jeffrey Wright as Gen. Colin L. Powell, a man torn between an instinct for loyalty and what he sees happening around him.
Except for Wright’s conflicted Powell, the rest of these performances are sharper and more satiric than Brolin’s Bush -- Toby Jones’ scheming Karl Rove comes off worst of all -- and a good part of “W.'s” drama comes in the conflict between these glib plotters and the film’s woebegone protagonist.
“W.” opens with the planning of the celebrated “axis of evil” speech and goes back and forth between Bush as president and the years leading up to his election. We see the future president as the ultimate frat boy at Yale and as a bar-hopping party animal in Texas. But we also see Bush being born again and witness his touching and genuine relationship with his wife, Laura, as Elizabeth Banks brings a nice spark of love and conviction to the relationship.
But the key bond in “W.” is inevitably the one between the two presidents, father and son. It’s the father who gets the lion’s share of the good lines, at one point chiding his hard-partying son by saying, “Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?” Late in the film, the father even appears in the son’s bad dream, telling him, “You’ve ruined it, the Bush name, it took 200 years to build and you ruined it.” That’s a sentiment that unnerves the president and marks “W.” as a film not to be trifled with.
“W.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. In general release.