October, 2008, Drama

Film biographies aren’t all that rare – but good ones that succeed in capturing the essence of their subjects are. Length is one of many significant restraints in this category; Steven Soderbergh’s recently completed study of Che Guevara runs over 4 hours and will be released as two separate films – which surely will greatly dampen its commercial appeal. Can anyone whose life is sufficiently interesting to merit a celluloid biography be adequately covered in half as much running time? 

Two-time Oscar winning Director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July) has devoted much of his career over the last 20 years to this genre, with decidedly mixed results ranging from the interesting, (Nixon) through the outrageous, (JFK) to the simply awful (Alexander). He drafted veteran screenwriter Stanley Weiser, (who won his Oscar for the screenplay of Wall Street, another Oliver Stone film) to craft the script for this 2 hour and 11 minute study of our current president. After seeing it, I can’t decide whether that’s too long or not nearly long enough.

Working with a cast chosen for dramatic skills and plausible physical resemblance, Stone leapfrogs back and forth from Bush’s hell-raising days at Yale to the early days of his second term, when the administration’s blunders in Iraq became obvious even to his coterie of advisors. Bush’s self-reverential management style is nicely handled during the scenes leading up to the invasion, but the man himself remains as enigmatic as ever, despite a painstakingly realistic impersonation provided by Josh Brolin. 

Richard Dreyfuss portrays Dick Cheney with sufficient venom to conjure comparisons with Shakespeare’s Iago while Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell agonizes between clear thinking and going along to get along, but the rest of W’s talented cast has little more to do than re-confirm existing preconceptions of well-known public figures. As a result, the always interesting James Cromwell is reduced to playing Bush’s father as a remote patrician who consistently berates his son for not being more like his brother Jeb while Thandie Newton provides an especially nasal imitation of Condoleezza Rice’s speaking voice that borders on intentional caricature. Scott Glenn, Bruce McGill and Michael Gaston stand in for Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, C.I.A. head George Tenet and General Tommy Franks respectively, but the script doesn’t give them sufficient opportunity to make an impression.

In the film’s most serious casting mistake, England’s Toby Jones makes Karl Rove nearly an afterthought in Bush’s political rise to prominence. In doing so, the director wastes a perfect opportunity to dig deeply enough into their relationship in order to provide some understanding of Rove’s personal motivations and Bush’s reliance a political strategy that deliberately focused on divisiveness in his successful presidential campaigns. Much has been made of Bush’s conversion to religious fundamentalism and Stone places a great deal of attention on it as well, employing a nearly unrecognizable Stacy Keach as Reverend Earl Hudd, Bush’s pious spiritual adviser. 

W suggests that Bush was motivated by a life-long desire to earn his father’s respect and a corresponding resentment of the latter for failing to appreciate his son’s accomplishments. The film’s storyline sees Bush as channeling his political drive through a conviction that he’s God chosen instrument for political and regime change in the Middle East. That explanation may pass for insight in a piece of commercial movie entertainment, but it leaves audiences with the uneasy feeling that they’ve been shortchanged; how did this scion of a wealthy and politically-connected family evolve from boozing renegade to sober, “born-again” governor to the nation’s self-absorbed chief executive, assembling along the way a public image that convinced one of our two national political parties to back him for the highest office in America? 

The answer to that question won’t be found in W; for all its appealing energy and the director’s typical narrative verve, the man who sits in the White House today remains the enigma whose career has spawned endless dissection in books and articles during his nearly eight years in office. We may never know the man any better than we do today - - and for all his efforts here, Stone hasn’t enlightened us any further.

The verdict? An energetic effort to unravel the core of a frustratingly opaque national figure.

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