Funny, compelling, enlightening and more than a little unnerving, Oliver Stone has really nailed it this time with a movie that stands as one of his very best.
Rushed into production last spring in order to make an October release date right in the heart of a presidential election, director Oliver Stone's W hits the bullseye with this fairly well-balanced portrait of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), a man who grows up in the shadow of a larger-than-life father and goes on to serve in the White House four years longer than his "Poppy" did. Stone's biographical study of the brash cowboy from Texas chronicles his early years as an oilman and baseball team owner through his run for Congress, his work on his father's presidential campaign, his election as Governor of Texas and finally his ascent into the White House where he still sits today. We also see his courtship of Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and particularly his awkward dealings with his dad (James Cromwell), a complex relationship that ultimately forces W to rise up and compete with the legacy of his father and mentor. It's that difficult dynamic between Bush Sr. and Jr. that forms the heart of the film and reveals the enigma that remains George W. Much of the story centers on the buildup to the decision to go into Iraq. Those sequences set in the White House situation room are at times hilarious in a Dr. Strangelove way and also a somewhat sobering, if speculative, window into how the Bush Administration does things.
This film could not succeed if it was played as simply a Saturday Night Live sketch, favoring impersonation over interpretation. Stone asked his actors to get the "spirit" of their respective characters and the results are impressive indeed. Brolin hits a career high and leaps into the Oscar race with his portrayal of George W. Bush. He's close enough physically, although more movie star in looks, but he neatly captures the bravado and masked insecurities at the heart of the 43rd President, particularly when dealing with his father, brilliantly played by Cromwell. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush doesn't have a whole lot of screen time but certainly captures what we think we know about the former First Lady. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush is charming and winning. As for the Bush Administration figures who play a pivotal part in the proceedings, Richard Dreyfuss stands out, playing VP Dick Cheney as a Machiavellian figure out to create an empire in the Middle East. He loses himself in the skin of Cheney with almost effortless ease. Equally impressive is Toby Young, who not only resembles political mastermind and Bush operative Karl Rove, but turns this polarizing figure into a three-dimensional human being. Stacy Keach as a religious influence and Scott Glenn as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also shine in their few scenes. Less successful are Jeffrey Wright, lacking authority as the imposing Colin Powell, and Thandie Newton trying too hard to become Condoleeza Rice.
There is no question Oliver Stone knows his way around this kind of controversial subject matter but what may shock many is the measured and thoughtful way he approaches the material. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser's take on Bush is to present a man haunted by the legacy of his father, with a need to prove he is tougher and stronger. Stone approaches it as straight biography, while also treating it as part comedy. Despite its dramatic structure, W. is often subtly played for laughs. Clearly, the cast of characters in this almost Shakespearean tragedy gives the filmmaker lots of fodder, but they are presented in a surprisingly respectful manner. Even W comes off as an empathetic and sometimes likeable figure, a cowboy in the White House. As always Stone's command of the medium is impressive, and this is one of his finest films in many years. There's something about a president that sparks him creatively whether it's J.F.K., Nixon and now W.. Ultimately, he holds back his own views and presents the man, warts and all; he lets the viewer decide what place in history there will be for George W. Bush and by extension, the film Stone has made about him.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.