A George W. Bush bio-pic in the calloused hands of filmmaker Oliver Stone provides so much promise, it’ll make your head throb to simply consider the potential. Would “W.” be flat-out character assassination? A screwball farce? A diseased ode to the haunted mind of a controversial president? Turns out, after all the hand-wringing anticipation and peanut gallery predictions of malicious liberal content, “W.” is total and utter kitten play; a softball portrait of Bush that resembles more of a nutty community theater production than a typical scorching Stone project. Nevertheless, the unnervingly ordinary path taken by Stone exposes something completely unanticipated: sympathy.
Written by Stanley Weiser (“Wall Street”), “W.” isn’t structured as a typical bio-pic. Stone goes more for a “greatest hits” assembly, using the dubious planning stages of the Iraq War with confidants Condoleeza Rice (a virtually unrecognizable Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) as the home base of the picture. From there, the narrative bounces throughout time to survey Bush’s Yale frat-pledging years, his limited patience with jobs, sating a desire to run a baseball team, the wooing of Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks), his ascension to Texas leadership, and the feeding of a lifelong combustibility with parents George Sr. (James Cromwell) and Barbara (Ellen Burstyn).
There’s no rolling sense of pace holding the film together, instead “W.” aims for an episodic approach to hunt a deeper understanding of what demons propelled Bush from a spoiled young man to the presidency. It’s one hell of a story, yet Stone seems afraid to get his hands dirty. In 1995’s “Nixon,” the director found a particular respectful wavelength to approach a poisonous regime, while keeping a dense psychological framework alive even through the most iconic historical situations. “W.” doesn’t share that same passion. Stone shuffles away from his bag of visual tricks to shoot the picture with startling straightforwardness, eschewing camera pizzazz and editing subtext to stay close to Bush, abandoning all artistic flourishes. It creates an interesting tension at first, especially with so much dead, eerily silent (a minimal amount of music is used for the picture) space allowed for Brolin to deliver career-best work as Bush, but the inertia soon catches up with the film.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize Stone for his ambivalence toward Bush, yet that very restraint eventually overcomes the film, checking off familiar moments in history (the pretzel choke, the “Mission Accomplished” debacle) with plodding execution. There’s no spinning-plate craftsmanship or meticulous political satire to be dissected in the picture, which favors only mild, ineffective comedy with Bush’s famously inarticulate ways and grave examination of familial discord.
The roaring, enduring confrontation between Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. is primarily where Stone rests between bouts of historical recreation. This is the psychological meat of the film, presenting Bush’s indefatigable attempts to win fatherly approval while fighting the legacy of the Bush name. Bush Jr. was a party boy at heart, apathetic toward responsibility, turning to booze for consolation. “W.” turns the president into a sensitive man of perplexed intention, falling into his political successes almost accidentally, hoping only to impress his father. The Shakespearian war of wills between the two Bushes conjures the film’s most evocative moments, observing the fragility of Bush Jr. and how it informed his rise to power. Again, Stone treats the man with outrageous kindness when evisceration is certainly easier, spotlighting the vulnerability of Bush to best reassess what has occurred in the country over the last eight years.
Pushed through production this year at a lightning pace, “W.” is overlong and winded at 125 minutes, was visibly neutered to meet a PG-13 rating, and lacks a concentrated editorial polish along the lines of Stone’s previous motion pictures. It’s a messy film of contorted faces and stained lives, but certainly Stone deserves some credit for tackling Bush with such reserve. Assembled from both fact and fiction, “W.” doesn’t throw the book at George W. Bush; the picture presents a whole new angle to the man that’s fascinating to reflect on, trapped in a glacial, flavorless film that undermines such a valiant take on a legendary figure of division.