Oliver Stone's W. weaves two storylines from the imaginings of screenwriter Stanley Weiser-the Cabinet-level deliberations that led to the decision to invade Iraq and the journey of George W. Bush from alcohol-saturated frat boy to Texas politician-to argue that Bush suffers from the worst daddy issues since Oedipus.
This low-rent Freudian analysis makes Bush a sympathetic figure but proves ineffective at explaining the Bush presidency, whatever you think of its strengths and weaknesses. While trafficking in half-truths, unfair characterizations, and outright lies, W. isn't the hit piece that Stone promised when he bragged he'd rushed production of the film to release it before the November election. So it's a shame that Oliver Stone uses his considerable skills to produce so much historical fiction. Without it, W. (rated PG-13 for language, alcohol abuse, and brief disturbing war images) is well directed, with intriguing character development, solid scene staging, and sound narrative structure.
Bush is mocked for praying silently after intense meetings and his conversion experience is played up by a hokey evangelical preacher (the inimitable Stacey Keach) and accompanied by silly music. And yet the conversion is treated as earnest and life-changing. That such a treatment would be considered nuance is more a testament to how deranged Bush critics have become in the last eight years than to any subtlety on Stone's part.
Josh Brolin's portrayal of Bush comes off like a Saturday Night Live impression more than a character study. There is little of the political charm that took Bush into the Texas governor's mansion and the White House. In its place is a lot of talking while eating sandwiches. It's a cheap way to convey the alleged lack of sophistication the left abhors in Bush, and it presents a narrative that competes with Stone's other contention: that Bush is a privileged Ivy Leaguer whose never had to work for anything in his life.
Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell is one of the more interesting studies from the film. As might be expected of one of the more liberal members of Bush's cabinet, Powell is played as one of the good guys. But in the Stone version of reality, Powell supposedly knows that there is no intelligence that Saddam Hussein is harboring weapons of mass destruction-but lies to the world and uses his credibility to sell a war. The other players at least believe that they are doing the right thing in going to war in Iraq. This Powell knows it's wrong but argues for it anyway.
But a conflicted good guy is much better than the offensively stylized Condoleezza Rice played by Thandie Newton. With not even a nod to her strength, intelligence, or charm, Newton disparages Rice as a mealy-mouthed lapdog. The hatred on display toward Rice is breathtaking and adds nothing to the film. At least Richard Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney has some bite to his bark. And the sparring between Cheney and Powell is enjoyable to watch.
Elizabeth Banks' portrayal of Laura softens much of the movie and the love between the formerly skirt-chasing Bush and the smoking librarian adds life to the movie.
Anyone who expects anything less than fantasy from a Stone film gets what he deserves. But Stone's obsession with the idea that Bush is motivated by a desperate yearning to please his father overrides realty. For instance, we are to believe that Bush, not political operative Lee Atwater, created the infamous Willie Horton ad to get his father into the White House.
A major theme of the film is that the Iraq War wasn't just horribly misguided but horribly managed and is now a quagmire of death and destruction. It's a shame for Stone that the movie couldn't have been released a year ago when the media were trumpeting bad war stories daily. Now that reporters have fled Iraq due to lack of bad news and even opponents of the surge concede that it has worked, the movie's release date is what seems horribly managed. Still, if it were possible to divorce W. from its content, Stone has made an entertaining film that will ironically prompt viewers to sympathize with a man they have loathed.