This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 16, 2008 - "W.," Oliver Stone's new, moderately interesting movie about President George W. Bush, which takes the man from his drunken, girl-chasing college days to the dismaying aftermath of the "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq, is surprisingly restrained - restrained, that is, for Oliver Stone.
I was expecting outrageous, totally over the top black comedy, actors mugging to the high heavens, the audience's emotions pumped up by a feverish, ever-shifting palette of different film and video stocks in the manner of Stone's "Nixon."
Instead, what Stone has given us is a relatively low-key mixture of melodrama and farce - but farce deeply rooted in fact, taken in great extent from memoirs by former officials of the Bush administration. At times, the melodrama borders on sadness, although "W." never reaches tragedy. As conceived by Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) does not remotely approach the flawed nobility required for tragedy. Bush - the version in the movie anyway - is the man Stone has described as "this guy who is basically a bum who becomes president of the United States."
At times, you almost get the idea that Stone feels a tiny bit - a very tiny bit -- sorry for this erratic reformed alcoholic who has gotten in so far over his head.
Oliver Stone's George W. Bush is a man of little introspection whose only moments of self-doubt come in relationship to his father. As played brilliantly by James Cromwell, George Bush Sr. is a cautious, conservative, statesman-like old-fashioned East Coast Republican. In one particularly telling scene, he is polite but dismissive of a group of evangelists W. has assembled to give his father a political boost. George Sr. says he guesses he will stick with Episcopalianism, thank you very much.
George H.W. Bush doesn't think the son he calls "Junior" will ever amount to much, and with good reason. When Junior, after a series of failed businesses and wrecked cars, tells Senior he is going to run for governor of Texas, Senior is incredulous. Younger brother Jeb, now there's the politician, he says, further infecting Junior with sibling rivalry.
A problem with the movie is that we, too, find ourselves incredulous that the wastrel in the movie could be elected governor, even if he has found Jesus and sworn off the sauce. Despite a solid performance by Josh Brolin (the man who found the drug money in "No Country for Old Men"), we never get the feeling that the protagonist of "W." could be elected to anything. And it seems extraordinary and unbelievable, from the evidence of the film, that an idealistic liberal librarian like his future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) would find him attractive.
Stone and Weiser have tried to plumb the oedipal depths of George W. Bush's relationship with his parents - he takes after his mother, we are told - but have failed to answer a central question: What is it that voters find so appealing in him? It can't all be Karl Rove, Nixonian dirty tricks and stoking the fires under the evangelical base. Or can it? Perhaps Stone intended to leave this question a mystery.
Speaking of Karl Rove, George W. Bush's top political advisor is played with delicious, lip-licking malice by Toby Jones (who was Truman Capote in "Infamous"). At every top-level meeting, Jones lurks in the background, curled up like a cat, grinning. His job, he says after one meeting at which politics have once again trumped wise policy, is to scatter "fairy dust" in the president's path. I guess Stone couldn't resist that line.
The film opens by bouncing back and forth in time, from George W. drinking his way through college and a series of business failures to trying to seize the day after 9/11 and invade Iraq. His goal is to go all the way to Baghdad, seeing his father's failure to do so as an unfinished family task.
The tone bounces back and forth, too, between drama and farce, sometimes awkwardly, but the movie really grabs traction about halfway through, in a meeting of the National Security Council at which the President, Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld trample all over Secretary of State Colin Powell's objections to the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that, as he says earlier, "You break it, you own it." As played superbly by Jeffrey Wright, Powell is a man with clear vision and a deep and painful understanding of the cost of war in an unfriendly land, but he finally lacks the strength of character to resist what he is almost certain is a disastrous course.
"What is the exit strategy?" someone asks. "No exit," replies Cheney. "We stay."
Mostly, the acting in "W." is first rate, although the film sometimes suffers from inevitable comparisons to portrayals of some of these characters on "Saturday Night Live." The plot achieves some cohesion after the crucial National Security Council meeting, and from there the themes all revolve around Iraq, with that war-ripped country standing for all the problems - Katrina, the economy, torture -- that have led to George W. Bush now having some of the lowest approval ratings of any president in history.
In the end, Bush seems baffled, overwhelmed and depressed by it all. As do millions of other Americans.
Opens Oct. 17.
Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.