Say what you will about director Oliver Stone, but the man has guts. The bard of American political cinema is now making history of his own by releasing a quickie biopic (of sorts) about a sitting president. Though not as exhaustive as Stone's Nixon (and lacking the benefit of perspective) W. takes a similar tack in treating George W. Bush's life as the stuff of high drama: specifically, a uniquely American story about a unique American.
W. turns out to be equal parts comedy (inevitably only-in-America satire) and Oedipal psycho-drama: more than anything, it's a story of how Bush Junior (Josh Brolin) craves the approval of his presidential father, George Herbert Walker Bush (James Cromwell). Though the film is mostly framed around the decision to go to war in Iraq, Stanley Weiser's script be-bops backward and forward in time and even into a handful of fantasy and dream sequences. Along these lines, Stone has great fun making hay of Bush's baseball pursuits and using music as ironic counterpoint (Dick James' "Robin Hood" to frame Bush as ironic warrior-rebel, Willie Nelson's "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," Mitch Miller's "Yellow Rose Of Texas").
Though Bush never emerges as a wholly coherent figure, Stone acknowledges his humanity, a la Nixon's, as tragic fodder. "People say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but they don't know the burden it carries," "W" complains. We see Bush at Yale, pledging the "Delta Capsters" (the typically absurd hazing inspires Bush's penchant for nicknames) and jailed for drunk and disorderly conduct (his one phone call goes to Cromwell's profoundly disappointed "Poppy"). There's W "hardly working" on an oil rig, one of a succession of failed jobs for the prodigal son.
The bad years peak in the early 1970s, first in a speculative scene set at Poppy's law office. With Bush intimating he could use a hand making a pregancy go away, Poppy relents and bails his son out again. "I'll take care of this...young woman," he says, adding "Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?...You disappoint me, Junior. Deeply disappoint me." Matters only worsen a year later, in 1972, as W. drunk drives onto Poppy's lawn and unleashes a domestic disturbance involving himself, "good son" Jeb (Jason Ritter), Poppy and Barbara (Ellen Burstyn).
A metaphor for Bush's leadership style, reckless driving turns out to be one of the film's prime motifs (another scene, in which Bush drives himself and Laura into a wall, has a basis in fact). The other major metaphor is food. Bush is constantly eating and drinking, which becomes more than a behavioral detail. Stone treats it as another Freudian insight: an oral fixation that might partly betray his bond with Barbara but mostly shows W's fruitless attempt to fill his own psychological void of daddy-love. (This metaphor also provides the only "good" reason to trot out Bush's otherwise irrelevant pretzel-choking incident.)
Stone and Weiser ascribe Bush's turnaround to a combination of fed-up ambition, his alcoholic dry-out and "born again" Christianity, and the support of up-and-coming neo-cons, particularly Karl Rove (Toby Jones). Bush swaps evangelical Reverend Earle Hudd (Stacey Keach) for old friend Jack Daniels. The scion once planning to set himself up for life on Wall Street accepts the opportunity to work for his father's Presidential campaign, which Stone paints as the son's political turning point. W proudly screens the infamous Willie Horton spot for his father and later laments Poppy's "wimp"-y unwillingness to press the Gulf War to greater lengths.
The scenes set early in this decade focus on the hatching of the Iraq War, leaving out the 2000 election and Bush's famous failures in New Orleans and Iraq. W. touches on the cronyism of the Bush family while also having a great deal of fun with W's closest advisors, the Not-So-Magnificent Seven: Rove, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, welcome back), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), and George Tenet (Bruce McGill). Stone has Tenet shaking his head in dismay a few times, but it's mostly Powell who comes off as the heroic voice of reason. "You break it, you own it," Powell warns of Iraq.
It's difficult to know at this point if Powell deserves such high marks, or if Rice deserves such low ones. Stone conspires with Newton for a hilarious but unfair decimation of Rice as the Stepford National Security Advisor, a zombified yes woman. Rice deserves to be pilloried, but not like this. Weiser and Stone fare best in a theatricalized summation of Bush's path to war: a long, rather brilliantly written "war room" meeting involving the eight major players and establishing the slam dunk of Cheney's neocon imperialist philosophy (exit strategy? "There is no exit. We stay"). A later bookend scene effectively morphs the food motif into a metaphor for drinking the Kool-Aid, as the seven advisors munch pecan pie at another meeting presided over by Bush.
Stone's flair and gift for dramatic sarcasm make W. a consistently lively experience, and Brolin does exceptional work in a role with a high degree of difficulty (necessary and well-executed impersonation, dramatic chops and a sense for comedy). Still, W remains an enigma: if his motivations are credible, there's the matter of reconciling his personal self-doubt with his divine-right political confidence, his dimwitted anti-intellectualism (tortured syntax included) with his shrewd instincts and ruthless political strokes. At least the seven dwarfs surrounding W go some way to explaining his success, and Stone plays for laughs Bush's "methinks he protests too much" insistence, to Rove and Cheney, that Bush and Bush alone calls the shots.
Stone heightens the theme-reflecting in-your-face intensity with two intimate recurrent visual approaches: uncomfortably close close-ups and cinematographic approximations of tunnel vision (as in Bush's born-again breakthrough). Though not all of the pieces of W's personality coalesce, the film's truest (if isolated) dramatic moment may come at the climactic press conference where Bush finds himself at a loss to conjure and therefore admit a single failure of his administration. Brolin nails the scene, suggesting once more that he may be the only actor around who could have pulled off W.