The paradox of W. is that it comes four years too late to prevent a Bush re-election and at least that many years too early for a complete summation and judgment of the man as a historical figure. Thus, even conveniently positioned just before an election that will decide whether or not to continue on the Bush path (and McCain does make a teeny tiny appearance), the film is trapped in the limbo of the present tense, telling the story of the man who still holds the office of president of the United States of America, its hands tied by a supposed anti-partisan resolve.
First and foremost, Josh Brolin practically redefines what it means to disappear into a role. He is Bush, from drunken frat initiation to complete lack of WMDs in Iraq. James Cromwell as George Bush, Sr., Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Toby Jones as Karl Rove, and Ellen Burstyn in a walk-on role as Barbara Bush similarly affect the looks and mannerisms of their characters with chameleonic skill. And they are surrounded by a constellation of supporting actors, nearly all of whom are recognizable by face if not by name, including Thandie Newton, Rob Corddry, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffud and Jason Ritter.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
That is not to say the impersonations are flawless without exception; they range from Brolin and Dreyfuss’s bang-on impressions to hollow caricatures of actual people. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) emerges early on as the voice of reason, and – true to fact or not – serves as “Oliver Stone mouthpiece” for the entire movie, much as Kevin Costner did in JFK.
W.’s biggest failing aside from its epically poor timing is its structure. Jumping from one moment to another, it plays biographical hot potato without any obvious rhyme or reason (did we really need the unadorned, totally decontextualized but mercifully brief scene of Dubya choking on a pretzel?). One moment Brolin is working (actually, “not working” is closer to the truth) on an oil rig, the next he is in the Oval Office daydreaming about baseball, and the next he’s in a bar making false promises to an intoxicated lady friend. Simply put, the vignettes are engrossing, but the bigger picture just doesn’t work.
To add insult to injury, when W. feels like it’s drawing to a close, it’s actually just getting started on the third act. It doesn’t so much climax as peter out after a series of potential ending moments that puts Return of the King’s slow close to shame. What it does well is take a high-profile political figure and explore the interplay between the human elements and the political elements of his story. Politically, W. is an incisive indictment of Bush and everything he stands for; but on the personal level it paints a sympathetic portrait of a man just trying to live up to people’s expectations and escape from under the twin shadows of his over-achieving father and brother.
The real question is just who Stone’s intended audience is. Eschewing the format of an election-season polemic costs him the staunch Democrats, and by levelling a critical, if honest, directorial eye at Bush and his party he sacrifices the likely interest of most Republicans. For the people in the middle – provided they have something of an interest in politics – W. serves up an entertaining enough repast.