October 17, 2008


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.

If even half of this portrayal is true, riots are in order...

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+


  1. Most interesting, Daniel. You've made me look forward to this just a little more, especially in light of its rather beleaguered status with critics.

    I will almost surely see this tonight. I'm right in the middle of writing a review of Stone's Nixon, which I viewed again. Have you seen that, Daniel?

  2. I saw it with a group of about 15 people, and I'm pretty sure I was the only person who liked it. The criticisms are fair: it's not as funny or as edgy as it could have been. But it should it have been? Did it need to be? I think the answers to those questions are arguable.

    All I know is that it's stayed in my head for most of this week, and when I was watching the debate coverage on TV the other night and Karl Rove showed up, it was both surreal and hilarious.

    Kind of interesting that I didn't make mention of either Nixon or JFK here. I feel like those two are more similar to each other than they are to W. Granted, I can hardly remember much of Nixon, but I remember those both being a little more linear and a little less amusing than W.

  3. I am going to see this tonite, so I may as well wait until I get home to look at it. It looks like a worthy, comprehensive review though, and I'll definitely return to compare notes.

  4. Sorry, I was made too depressed and angered by that video to read the rest of your review. ;)

  5. If Oliver Stone wants to be taken seriously, he ought to stop rewriting history.

    As for the sitting president - we are known by the company we keep. The president is as culpable in the crimes against humanity as anyone else. He's not stupid (though it's likely he's drugging big time). If you look at him debate before the 2000 elections, he was sharp, precise, and clear in his ideology.

    If you got something out of the film, good for you. I have no intention of giving my free time over to that thug.

  6. Oliver Stone has long ago emerged from the place where he was making great film after great film, 1985-1991, but it is a relief that W. is not the embarassment that Alexander or World Trade Center were. I'll be looking forward to it on DVD. Thanks, Daniel.

  7. I have no idea when this opens here, but based on a few positive reviews, I hope it hurries the hell up already! Lol, otherwise, good review and a great read indeed.

  8. I feel bad for not commenting very frequently here lately. It's just that you're reviewing all the films I want to see so bad but haven't had the time. I usually try to go in to films before reading reviews.

    That being said, I read the review for W. and now I want to see it even more. I'm a Brolin fan (except for the fact that he's married to Diane Lane...bastard) and I think he's going to make an interesting G.W. Also, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush was a great casting choice in my mind. She looks incredible. Hope her performance lives up to my own hype.

  9. Not to worry, Scott. I've obviously been occupied away from here lately. It's nice to see that people still check in, even if they don't comment.

    I'm looking forward to reading all of your reviews on W., if and when they happen. Fletch, there's unfortunately a lot more where that video came from...

    Joe, I was also disappointed by the small scale of WTC. To make a movie about that day and focus so narrowly was a little disappointing. Plus, I was distracted by Maria Bello's glowing electric eyes the whole time. I'd love to read your treatment of this sometime in the next couple of years, especially when we have a little more hindsight to consider.

    Well, Marilyn, like I said I didn't really learn anything new, but I did find it a good "refresher" of sorts. There's a lot of attention, obviously, on the future right now, but I'm afraid too many people too easily forget the past, even just the last few years.

    Don't get me wrong about my thoughts on Bush. It's not that I consider him an idiotic puppet. It's just that I don't think he really orchestrated much of what his administration did; he just spoke for it. That doesn't free him from blame, but it expands the blame to all of the people who DID formulate our policies. W. clearly portrays this, even if Stone is guilty of fudging some of the technical details.

  10. I didn't like it as much, Daniel--but your review makes a number of strong points regardless. In my post earlier this evening at LiC, I focused more on the things that didn't work for me, though I did mention several of the things that did.

    Brolin in particular is exceptional here, and even critics/people who adamantly disliked the film seem to agree.

  11. Daniel - I don't think anyone disputes the influence of other neocons, particularly Cheney, in the disaster of the past 8 years. My concern with a film like this is that it might help rehabilitate the image of people who don't deserve it. That's a popular think for our movie myth makers to do. Long ago, Olver Stone had sympathy for the common soldier (Platoon). I guess those days are gone.

  12. "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?"

    I don't know, it sounds remarkably like what she's been able to do, unfortunately!

    You can read my review of W. here:

  13. Thanks, Alexander. Surely this must have been disappointing after you'd just seen Nixon. I liked Craig's thought on how many of Brolin's best moments here were the quiet bits and discussions with Laura and Poppy.

    Now that's a really good point, Marilyn. If people walk out of this with any better impression of this administration, we have a serious problem.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, movieman. Did you see Fey Palin on SNL this weekend? That was a funny little trick. I loved when they walked past each other.

  14. I'm not sure what my expectations going into the film were. I honestly didn't know what to make of it and I still don't.

    The fact that he's just a well-meaning dope who is out of his element and surrounded by snakes doesn't make me feel any better about the presidency. I already knew this. I don't feel like Stone is breaking new ground here.

    Yet...I didn't completely hate it. Pointless, yes, but not un-entertaining.

    I think my favorite scene was the BBQ scene. It's what convinced me I wanted to see the movie in the first place. There was something appealing about the scenes between George and Laura.

    Maybe it was just Elizabeth Banks.

  15. Right, just as I told Alexander. I hadn't really thought about that until you mentioned it in your review. I also liked your simple description of Brolin playing Bush as a character and not a caricature.

    "The fact that he's just a well-meaning dope who is out of his element and surrounded by snakes doesn't make me feel any better about the presidency."

    Haha, well me neither, but just seeing that was sufficient for me, even though actually depicting him as a snake may have been more entertaining.

    I didn't realize I had seen Banks in so many movies until I checked out her filmography. Shaft, Wet Hot American Summer, Seabiscuit, all the Spider-Man movies, Catch Me If You Can. I knew she looked familiar, but I just thought she looked like somebody else the whole time, maybe Rachel McAdams or somebody.

  16. No, I read about it (though not that part) but inadvertently missed it when it was on. There was an interesting (and critical - though hard to say if it's from a right or left perspective) take on it here: http://xpostfactoid.blogspot.com/2008/10/silent-sarah-submits-to-snl-skewering.html (h/t New Republic)

  17. That is pretty interesting - thanks a lot for the link!

  18. I agree with your post about this movie trying to be so many different things that it doesn't accomplish any of them. But at the same time I loved the fact that Stone didn't go the hatchet job route that I'm sure everyone expected. I can't stand Bush, but treating him as a tragic figure made the movie a lot more enlightening than the alternative.

  19. True. And it was a lose-lose situation for Stone. Show sympathy to Bush and get the critical response he did, or unabashedly attack him and be further labeled a crazy radical. Making a movie with Will Ferrell as Bush might have been a lot funnier, but neither would it have given us any more insight on who the guy is.

  20. I actually really enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Gotta disagree with you on Thandie Newton, though. I thought she was unwatchable.

  21. I agree that Newton was very difficult to watch - too over the top and weirdly mean-spirited in a way that even the portraits of Rumsfeld and Cheney weren't.

    And I finally saw the Palin clip from SNL. I must say it was pretty hilarious, especially the guy in a moose suit getting shot down and the eskimo posse, but it would have been even funnier if Palin had done the rap herself.

  22. Me too, Nayana. Right here just a few months ago I expressed doubt about it, but it ended up being OK for me.

    Man, nobody liked Newton but me! I admit at first it was little much, but after that I bought it. She nailed it, I thought.

    I agree, movieman - Palin rapping would have been some sight. Probably painful, but at least as entertaining.

  23. Josh Brolin did a convincing Dubya, though he reminded me a lot of his cowboy character from No Country for Old Men...

  24. Interesting, Patrick - I didn't think about it at the time, but throw a mustache on Dubya during the barbecue scene and you do indeed have Llewelyn (sp?) Moss. Thanks for commenting!


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