(director: Oliver Stone; screenwriter: Stanley Weiser; cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael; editor: Julie Monroe; music: Paul Cantelon; cast: Josh Brolin (George W. Bush), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), James Cromwell (George H. W. Bush), Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), Stacy Keach (Earle Hudd), Bruce McGill (George Tenet), Thandie Newton (Condoleezza Rice), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Bill Block/Eric Kopeloff/Paul Hanson/Moritz Borman; Lionsgate; 2008)
“The film lets us know the American people made a huge mistake in electing W. as the 43rd president.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Once controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone (“Wall Street”/”JFK”/”Platoon”), now decidedly more bland, directs and Stanley Weiser writes this topical biopic about the life and career of the ‘devil in the White House,’ arguably America’s worst president, George W. Bush, and bends over backwards to be fair. It’s fascinating at times as it goes from the present back to W.’s youthful days of inner turmoil, especially when looking at how mentally unbalanced is the wannabe John Wayne prez; but, the story still feels incomplete (the ending still awaits) and one that’s far too sympathetic to W. considering how much blood there is on his hands and how reckless he was in disregarding the Constitution. Though I realize it won’t please all the partisans on either side of the fence, as its fiction blends in with its nonfiction making this as it should be–Stone’s imaginative version of history. Yet even if it tells us nothing new, it at least tells us in certain terms that we were lied to and led into war on false pretenses.
In the course of W.’s rise and fall bio, which begs to be a documentary or a newspaper editorial, it covers in detail his daddy issues (at one point he says his simpatico father is Reagan and if needing to consult someone about an important issue only the Lord will do), his troubled womanizing booze years, his elitist frat days at Yale as the spoiled privileged son of power, his born-again evangelical Christian conversion leading to the giving up of booze (though his evangelical belief is real, it’s hard to think of him as a real Christian when he shows no empathy for the victims and still retains a big ego), his marriage to his loyal and supportive wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and his surprising success in politics when he failed in everything else (the demons that caused him to drink now become the demons that influence him in politics).
By being so conventional, Stone relies on the following two ingredients to get his story across: accurate research (there’s only one dream scene that is not based on fact, and Brolin’s frantic characterization of him as someone always in motion looks true but is based on speculation) and some great performances. That comes from the likes of the following: Josh Brolin as an empty headed ambitious W., who did it all to please poppy and then proves he could accomplish something in life by doing better than dad (bumbling junior wanted to be stronger than dad, thereby he goes to war); James Cromwell as W.’s beleaguered noble father, painted as more or less a decent guy (even with those Willie Horton ads), who is a foil for junior and would have preferred his smarter and more stable younger son Jeb to try for the presidency; Richard Dreyfuss, capturing the darkness, sneers and smugness of Dick Cheney to a tee; and the rest of W.’s creepy inner circle giving good impersonations of their noxious characters to give us a bird’s eye view of how they all banded together to lie to the American people about the war– from WMDs to their real agenda to take control of the oil in the Middle East and thereby control that region.
Stone lets us see W. as the conflicted Christian in many different moments of his life; such as, when he boldly states he’s the Decider, even when he’s not curious enough to know how the war is being carried out by his inept cabinet; his animal quality when he utters “Don’t think too much, it screws your head up;” and in the closing scene’s press conference when W. still doesn’t know or think he did anything wrong even though everything he did has seemingly gone up in smoke.
The film lets us know the American people made a huge mistake in electing Bush as the 43rd president, and even though that seems obvious by now it doesn’t hurt saying it again and again so maybe people can be woken up not to be taken in again by such a “field of dreams” poser (at least for not around twenty years, the time it would probably take to straighten out W.’s mess). I saw it as an honest effort to get at the truth associated with this president, but it left me cold in its SNL caricatures that lacked satirical wit and in the facile exploration of the Oedipal issues raised that falsely made it seem like the older Bush was merely a patrician and junior merely the likable “average Joe” who unexpectedly became president when he wasn’t appointed baseball commissioner. W.’s biography deserves a more critical look at how he put the American people at risk manipulating them into accepting an unnecessary war in Iraq and couldn’t complete the job in Afghanistan against the terrorists who deserved to be retaliated against for their 9/11 attack, than mostly a comedy of errors take on his presidency. I guess the more serious implications are something for other films to go after, or Stone to follow through in given time when all the dust settles and we even learn more about this prez and his henchmen. But, in the meantime, I’ll live with this biopic for its immediacy and for letting us know even before W.’s second term is up that history will not be kind to him.
REVIEWED ON 10/18/2008 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/