Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn
Director: Oliver Stone
Release Date: October 17, 2008
Running Time: 129 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Lions Gate
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Any comedian will tell you the secret to a good joke is to make it accessible, have a good setup, and kill with the punch line. I don’t know that there is necessarily a golden formula but this seems like pretty sound advice on a general level. I suppose variations of the same thing can be said about making movies. Director Oliver Stone had nothing if not a golden setup. A movie about the exiting President of the United States, while he is still in office, mere days before the election that would remove him from power, and with just enough time to reflect on his last eight years in office. Stone being no stranger to controversy or films of historical significance seemed to be in a perfect position to move in for the kill. Instead we got what those in retail refer to as the old ‘bait and switch’.
W. does show us what we expected to see from this movie; that George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) grew up as a hard partying man of privilege who rarely had to deal with consequences for anything he did or said. He was an irresponsible, womanizing, carousing, spoiled little rich kid who wouldn’t and couldn’t hold a job. Any trouble he got into was fixed by a phone call from his father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell). It also told how Dubya fell ass-backwards into politics and eventually became the leader of the free world. It would almost be an inspiring “little engine that could” type story, if not for knowing the details about how everything actually turned out. The pre-release posters and trailers suggested the movie would be a caustic illustration of the rise and fall of the 43rd President of the United States. Turns out, W. shows a surprising lack of poignancy, political or otherwise.
Bear in mind, Oliver Stone is a man who built a career out of making controversial films based on actual events of historical significance. He’s not even a stranger to Presidential controversy (JFK, Nixon). Stone has turned this type of film into a brand name, largely based on the controversy his films willfully embody. This time, for one reason or another, he seemed to completely abandon ship. W. didn’t have enough bite to be the satire it wanted but was just mean enough to be unsympathetic. Just when I thought I understood which angle they were going for, the table turned. With a film like W. you expect, if not demand, that that the film pick a side, especially with Stone in the driver’s seat. The expectation was built before a page of dialogue was ever written.
After seeing the film I started questioning the timing of its release. If it was satire they were going for, why now? What left is there to gain by taking one last whack at a piñata that has long since been emptied? Wouldn’t that approach have been a lot more impactful had it waited until the cake cooled before applying the frosting? If it was sympathy they were after, again, why now? Wouldn’t it have helped out even a year ago before Bush’s legacy had already been cemented?
There is just too much that didn’t fit together for W. to have worked like it was supposed to. In an effort to rush it into theatres before the election the whole thing felt slapped together. For as disconnected a film as it was there were some really great performances; namely Josh Brolin as Dubya and Richard Dreyfuss as his second in command, Dick Cheney. Both men opted for performance over impression and both helped carry the film through some of the slower parts. This is all far more than I can say for the treatment Thandie Newton gave to the character of Condoleezza Rice. It is less surprising how bad per impersonation was but rather how no one else filming noticed how bad it was. Regarding performances, the problem in a movie with this many moving parts is that it’s impossible for the array of characters to get their just development. In the end it mostly felt like a bunch of famous people dressing up and acting like a bunch of other famous people doing MADtv skits out of order for two hours.
Every time W. had a chance to go for the throat, Stone turned a sympathetic eye on his subject and gave him an excuse. By suggesting that Bush has a reason for being the way he is, you remove any accountability he has coming because it suggests that he didn’t have a choice. It’s not just a stretch but more a shame that Stone thought it would be just that easy.
And there’s the rub.
** out of ****