I liked Oliver Stone's W. because it was validating. Believe it or not, I don't have much of a problem with George W. Bush. Never really have for the last five or six years, since whenever I figured out that he is not the man with the plan, but the man with the microphone. No, Bush is not my problem - the people that have surrounded him are: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, and most of all, you - all of you.
So seeing Bush portrayed as a genuinely honest simpleton and not a calculating, conniving politician was a welcome sight. Far too many people are in the business of scapegoating while far too many of the people who are guilty, like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, have escaped unnoticed. With W., Oliver Stone doesn't necessarily try to take down anyone in particular, even Bush, but rather tries to demonstrate to us that the people directing this country have been doing so with discordant motives. George W. Bush wants to prove wrong his disapproving father George H.W. Bush. Dick Cheney wants to create an oil-fueled American empire. Condoleeza Rice wants to be accepted in her role. Karl Rove wants to influence the American public. Donald Rumsfeld wants to show off his new, futuristic military strategy. And Colin Powell, well he just wants to do the right thing.
Mix all of these motives in the same pot, let them simmer for a few years, and serve. Those of us who didn't recoil from our first taste of the result are now finally realizing that what we ate isn't sitting very well. Indeed, the American public is suffering from a bad case of political indigestion, and for many people, W., will seem like just the Pepto-Bismol they need. But if you ask me, I'm past the need for Pepto-Bismol; I don't want the indigestion to simply go away with a nasty or vindictive movie. I would rather find out who stepped away from the stove while this noxious stew was cooking (here's a hint - it was the American voting public) and make sure that it doesn't happen again.
This is why your expectations of W. will be the defining difference between your reaction to the film and mine. While it was a bit tamer than I expected, I never really though Oliver Stone would actually make a farcical, goofy satire about the sitting president. Stone doesn't make comedies. He wants to be taken seriously, and he wants to push buttons. In this case, perhaps, he wanted to influence an election or bring our attention back to Iraq (nearly half the film is about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East). Any way you look at it, there was little reason to think W. was going to be an outrageous affair, but I can understand the disappointment that it wasn't one. The way I see it, there's not much funny about what's been going on during the last seven years (I consider Bush's presidency really beginning with 9/11), which may explain why the laughs I experienced throughout this movie were so awkward. My first "ha" was genuine, but my second "ha" didn't feel right, because this bad joke isn't actually that much of a joke at all.
Which is not to say that W. doesn't have its moments of sharp comedy. On the contrary, the acting may be the most amusing and outright impressive that you'll see all year from an ensemble cast. As college-age Bush, present-day Bush, and every Bush in between, Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) really takes his title character to heart, imbuing the President with much more emotion and self-examination than we've seen from the real man's public persona. This isn't an award-worthy performance, but it's an admirable and amusing one, and it was better than I expected. The same unfortunately can't be said for Jeffrey Wright (The Invasion, a.k.a. The Worst Movie of 2007) as Colin Powell, who neither looks nor sounds anything like the former Secretary of State, even if he does demonstrate the same quiet demeanor.
Moving on, the rest of the cast is truly outstanding. Thandie Newton (Run Fatboy Run) dials in the performance of a lifetime as Condoleeza Rice, while fellow Brit Toby Jones (The Mist) nails Karl Rove right down to the smirking twinkle in his eye. Capably filling out the White House cast are Scott Glenn (The Bourne Ultimatum) as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Dreyfuss (Poseidon) as Dick Cheney, and Rob Corddry (Harold & Kumar...Guantanamo Bay) as infamously annoying Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Completing the Bush clan are James Cromwell (Spider-Man 3) as George H.W., Elizabeth Banks (Meet Dave) as Laura, and Ellen Burstyn (The Fountain) as Barbara.
It's a remarkable cast from top to bottom, but as I already mentioned they're not given the task of hamming it up and winking at the camera. They play their roles straight and true, and the result resembles a "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which no jokes are actually written. Imagine Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, but instead of poking fun she just repeats the actual words of Sarah Palin and delivers them with a straight face. Maybe funny, but not quite as funny, right?
Aside from a handful of missed opportunities by screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also co-wrote Stone's acclaimed Wall Street), W.'s other nagging problem is that the disjointed narrative stalls multiple times (no more so than when Bush has his religious reawakening) and is bookended by a baseball analogy that doesn't seem to have any important purpose. Maybe, like Spike Lee's recent Miracle at St. Anna, W. is just overly ambitious. It appears Stone wanted to make a historical film, a biopic, an indictment on the Iraq War planning, and a dramedy - all at once. There's a little something for everyone, but at the same time not enough to satisfy most people's expectations or desires.
So W. isn't excellent, but the performances are entertaining and the content is enraging. Of course it's not a documentary, but enough of the facts are known that Stone doesn't really need to stretch the truth, and it doesn't really matter anyway. The fact is, Bush & Co. are going to be gone and never heard from again, and we're all left behind with the mess. W. doesn't offer answers and it doesn't offer comfort via comedy; it's just there to needle you about the reality of our situation. You may not leave having learned anything new, but I guarantee you'll chuckle the next time you see any of these figureheads on TV.
Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5
Total: 44/50= 88% = B+