Crafting a film around a monumental figure is always a challenge. Such a film must present its audience with a view of the man or woman not seen in the headlines or tabloids: someone with their own dreams and triumphs as well as shortcomings, both in the public and private sphere. Though we may admire or even despise the figure, we can sympathize. Nonetheless, the character must also be a realistic portrayal. If the figure is a political one, even more concerns are added: bias, agendas, and a focus on the politics rather than the person it represents.
Oliver Stone’s recent biopic of George W. Bush — which opened last Friday — is an interesting case. Not bothering to wait until he is even out of office, W. not only echoes the cries that surrounded Stone’s World Trade Center (that it was too soon to put September 11 on the silver screen), but the film must work much harder to convince an audience who is still living the Bush Era that Stone’s Bush is genuine. Waiting five or ten years until his speeches fade in our minds and our “Bushisms” calendars run out of pages may have been a smarter move. But then, Stone has never shied away from challenging material. Though his recent films have been lackluster (Alexander, anyone?), this is the director who gave us JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, and Natural Born Killers. He has profiled Kennedy and Nixon, so what does Stone have to offer for Bush?
Turns out, not much.
W. is exhaustively researched reaching back into Bush’s fraternity days at Yale and his failed business ventures, yet it fails to tell us anything we don’t already know. There is so much material to cover that Stone can never pause a moment and go deeper. Stone has gone to great lengths to take every word Bush says from speeches or interviews, but when it’s acted out, you get the sense that Stanley Weiser’s script simply tries to cram every Bushism into the movie, regardless of whether it fits the context or not. Josh Brolin (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men) delivers his lines in a mix of sincerity and bewilderment appropriate for the president but due more to a faulty script than Brolin’s performance, George W. Bush comes off as cartoonish.
A great deal more complexity lies in James Cromwell’s (24, Six Feet Under) take on George Bush, Sr.’s anxiety over the Middle East, his struggle to maintain the family name, and his utter disappointment in his son. W.’s quest to live up to his father’s image and his expectations are a profound vantage point to understanding this president, but Stone exploits this at every opportunity having Bush dwell on it constantly, having his wife and staff repeat it to him, and even staging an unnecessary dream sequence to drive the point in even further.
Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney and Toby Jones as Karl Rove are chillingly great, not to mention Jeffrey Wright’s performance as the reluctant Colin Powell, but many other compelling characters (say, Barbara Bush) are never given the screen time they deserve. With baseball clichés, the overdone Oedipus complex, and horrible green screen effects of crystal sharp Brolin giving his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard a grainy USS Abraham Lincoln, Stone only deteriorates his film further.
It’s difficult to tell what W. builds up to, if anything at all. There is no real climax or catharsis. Such a moment may have come with Bush watching the Twin Towers collapse, standing at Ground Zero, or even privately admitting his mistake concerning nonexistent WMDs, but these things are never addressed in Stone’s film (neither are Katrina, Abu Ghraib, the 2000 election with Jeb Bush governing Florida, or Cheney’s hunting skills).
We are ultimately left with a loose ending: Bush, imagining cheers in a vacant stadium searching for a baseball that has yet to fall from the sky. W. comes at a time when American’s have become disillusioned by Washington and are longing for something new. Unfortunately, Stone’s biopic fails to satisfy or present anything new. Like the recent presidential debates, it will change few viewers’ minds.