(No longer in theaters)
Oct 17, 2008
Oliver Stone’s W. is a bloodless puppet show, but give Stone points for attempting to burrow into the boy-king’s head. As in his biopics of Nixon and Alexander the Great, he comes not to mock his subject but to dramatize the nexus of great power and personality. The slant is Oedipal: Bush’s downfall, pegged to Iraq, is rooted in the tension with his dad. The movie begins with his declaration to do what his father didn’t—finish off Saddam—then leaps back in time to show W. (Josh Brolin) being sprung from jail by his father (James Cromwell) after a drunken frat-house binge. “Poppy” Bush calls “Junior” a disappointment and draws unfavorable comparisons with his younger brother, Jeb. Junior will show the old man, even if it means letting Cheney and Rumsfeld off their leashes.
By (low) biopic standards, this is a promising plan of attack. What’s dismaying is the lameness of the execution. W. receives the news in a Cabinet meeting that there are no WMDs in Iraq, listens to Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) sputter excuses, and says: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” This is, of course, a legendary “Bushism,” but it was blithered at a press conference when Bush had his usual trouble reciting his folksy talking points. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser don’t seem to know the difference between public and private discourse. There’s no racy, idiomatic dialogue here—no scenes with an independent life. The whole movie is talking points.
Brolin at least holds the screen. Early on, his W. is pure appetite, cramming food into his mouth and swilling beer. Suddenly sober, he’s a man reeling in search of a self. But I don’t buy his fundamental earnestness. Stone’s W. isn’t the smirking liar who never, as Norman Mailer said, felt a twinge of doubt about his qualifications to be president. He’s in over his head, but he means well.
W. isn’t gripping enough as drama or witty enough as satire. It’s neutered. Did Stone want to change his rabble-rouser image and show his critics he has become more responsible? (He has his own daddy issues.) Big mistake! His greatest asset—and I say this as someone whose least favorite film is Natural Born Killers—is a lusty, blowhard showmanship. In the midst of the turmoil that George W. Bush has wrought, Stone has delivered his most tepid film.