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W. gets a B

Josh Brolin prevails over Oliver Stone’s shaky portrait
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 15, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for W.

W. | Directed By Oliver Stone | Written by Stanley Weiser | with Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Stacy Keach, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright | Lionsgate Pictures | 129 minutes

Putting up W's: Screen depictions beat around the Bush. By Peter Keough.

As a journalist, Oliver Stone doesn’t have his five W’s quite in order when it comes to his investigation of George W. Bush. The “who” gets high marks, particularly in the performance of Josh Brolin as the title initial. More than imitating a person, Brolin embodies a process, the transformation of a black sheep fuck-up into a fuck-up who is the most powerful person in the world. He never attains the stature of hero or villain; neither does he ever achieve the kind of self-consciousness that can mean redemption (even for those born again).

But he is a likable guy who’s trying to do good despite his limitations. Maybe it’s because Sarah Palin has put the bar so low, but this Bush seems to have credibility, and he evokes sympathy. Not understanding, however — the “why” is never answered.

Partly that’s because Stone’s film appears to be a quickie job, like a celebrity biography rushed to press to capitalize on a scandal before the notoriety can go cold. It’s a pastiche, with brilliant moments and leaden clunkers in equal number, uncertain in tone and point. Holding it together is Brolin’s mastery of his character’s uncomprehending drive and certainty.

His W. starts out as a Delta Kappa initiate naked in a vat of ice and being force-fed vodka by frat brothers at Yale in 1966. Cut to post-9/11 and he’s the 43rd president, presiding over a cabinet meeting in the White House as his speechwriters and advisers struggle with the phrase that would eventually become “Axis of Evil.” The room looks like a Halloween party where you try to guess what actor is playing which disgraced administration member. There’s Toby Jones in an uncanny likeness of Karl Rove, Thandie Newton uncomfortable as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin “Party Pooper” Powell nay-saying his colleagues’ bellicose certainties, and a creepily convincing Richard Dreyfuss lurking in the shadows as the inevitable Dick Cheney, the puppet master — or enabler.

How did we get from point A to point W? It’s all the fault of his dad (James Cromwell), Stone implies. The years fly by — 1971, 1977, 1986 — as “Junior” blows off career opportunities and drinks hard and gets called on the carpet by Poppy again and again to hear the old man make invidious comparisons to his brother Jeb, and to tell his prodigal son how deeply disappointed he is. W. needs a new father — why not God? So he gets sober and becomes governor and then president, because God has told him he needs to save the world.

That’s one scenario, anyway, but it’s not clear whether either Stone or Brolin’s Bush buys it. Although Brolin doesn’t sink to caricature, Stone undercuts him with half-hearted stabs of irony (the dialogue is studded with a glossary of the administration’s best-known dumb remarks) and he appears to be alluding to the acerbic satire of Dr. Strangelove, since at key jingoistic moments we hear “The Yellow Rose of Texas” on the soundtrack. Then, just when you think he’s opted for out-and-out farce, he has W. and Laura (Elizabeth Banks) visit maimed soldiers from Iraq in a hospital and the snickers turn to something else. Not anger, but pity and grief at the damned tragedy of it all.

But whose tragedy? There are villains and fools aplenty in W. — Dreyfuss’s Cheney and Jones’s Rove are plausible Best Supporting Actor performances. But a hero? Powell has a chance but blows it. Poppy has several and does the same. Maybe W. was the only one who really wanted the role, and that’s where all the trouble began.

Related: Putting up W’s, Autumn peeves, The nanny state, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Dick Cheney, Elizabeth Banks, George W. Bush,  More more >
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