The rise and fall of a political dynasty
by Jason Blair
W.: Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stanley Weiser. Cinematography, Phedo Papamicheal. Music, Paul Cantelon. Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright and Bruce McGill. Lionsgate, 2008. PG-13. 131 minutes.
|Josh Brolin in W.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that 50 years from now, the George W. Bush administration will be regarded as among the worst ever. (The New Yorker recently called it the worst since Reconstruction; prior to that, a glut of mediocrity awaits, but one imagines Bush giving Buchanan a fight.) While it can take a generation to evaluate a presidential legacy, things don’t look good for the man they call “W.” His approval rating is a chilly 23 percent, below even that of Richard Nixon’s lowest and a mere point from Truman’s record low — an astonishing number when you consider that W. recorded the highest approval rating ever in 2001. His administration is remarkable not for a single, defining failure — Nixon’s Watergate, or Pierce’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise — but for how many failures there are to choose from. All the more incredible, then, that a filmmaker you might assume would pile on — Oliver Stone — instead delivers one of the most controlled films of his career, the sensationally balanced W.
W. consists of two braided timelines. The first, roughly beginning in 1966, chronicles the misfit period of Bush’s life, a time that lasted until he was about 40 and during which his only success was failure — grand failures, too, in both business and politics, despite the backing of the Bush family fortune. The second is the buildup for the invasion of Iraq, a period in which, as an overwhelmingly popular president, Bush and his cabinet construct a justification for war. If booze is Bush’s weakness as a younger man, hubris is his flaw as president, a quality only encouraged by a submissive Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), a smug Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), a Golem-like Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and, perhaps the most sinister of them all, a leering, sniveling Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss). What the first act makes clear is that W. was no idiot, just a raw, undisciplined blueblood who was arrogant in his certainties. The second act applies those qualities to the defining moment of his presidency, which has become the defining moment of our era: the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a response to 9/11.
Time and again, Stone passes at the chance to knock Bush down. There is an incredible sweetness to Bush’s introduction to Laura Welch (Elizabeth Banks), the librarian he would eventually marry. Surrounded by drunken fat cats, they fall into chatter both awkward and tender, endearing them to each other and, by extension, to us. Also pivotal is Bush’s born-again moment, the debilitating episode Bush experienced when it was clear he could no longer booze again. It’s shot in beautiful, overpowering sunlight, without a trace of irony to undercut it.
A great deal of the film’s success rests on Josh Brolin (Stone’s second choice after Christian Bale). It would have taken a crystal ball to predict Brolin’s ascendancy from B-movie staple to A-list leading man, but W. continues his incredible run from American Gangster and In the Valley of Elah to No Country for Old Men. Brolin has become, almost overnight, a go-to guy in Hollywood, and he’s done it with gritty portrayals of the honest and corrupt alike. His W. is the closest we will ever get the man himself, the charming, reckless, lazy, determined, lucky opportunist who became our 43rd president.
There are off-notes to W., little excesses that don’t belong, in particular Stone’s continued obsession with the wounded, be they Iraqi veterans or a sobbing George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell) after his loss to Bill Clinton. But mostly W. is a masterful, original and unprecedented look at a sitting president, if one who appears to have run afoul of history. One man’s dirt is another man’s sky, as the song goes. The letter “W” may yet be become synonymous with disaster; the film version of W. is anything but.
W is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.