Sunday, December 07, 2008

Movies: Oliver Stone's W.

Verdict: &&&1/2

It turns out that George W. Bush and I do have something in common — a taste for Dr. Pepper, that most addictive of beverages (even if I'm now confined to the caffeine-free version). It's one of the rather mundane details that director Oliver Stone makes clear in W., a film in which I believe Stone has fairly pure intentions (this is no Michael Moore-style ambush). I went to the movie seeking a bit of catharsis — a purging of some of the emotional disappointment of the past eight years — as well as perhaps a few insights into how Bush II came to be. Check the expectations at the door, and there's fun to be had here.

Weaving past and present, Stone shows us the young W. as a man who indulged in the privileged fun life while continually struggling to gain the approval of his accomplished father. Fast-forward to the 2000s, and the current W is seen planning the war in Iraq, devising the "axis of evil" rhetoric and puzzling over those elusive WMDs. One of Stone's missteps is focusing almost exclusively on Iraq and ignoring the highly disputed and suspect election outcome in 2000.

A serious challenge for this movie is that it's just about impossible to stop evaluating the cast's approximation of their respective characters and fully give in to Stone's narrative. Josh Brolin, at least, owns his character; the first time he did the Bush laugh, it was so true to life that I wanted to rewind and hear it again. Also precisely on the money is Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld; in a great scene in which the principles are commiserating about the absence of WMDs over lunch, Rumsfeld is singularly focused on the pleasures of a fabulous slice of pecan pie. Toby Jones also rises to the occasion as political weasel Karl Rove, the man who knew how to help Bush push the people's buttons (at least before 2008, anyway). From there, it's a decidedly mixed bag: Thandie Newton, as Condoleezza Rice, turns in a sub-Janet Jackson-on-SNL effort; Jeffrey Wright makes a reasonable stab at Colin Powell's voice of reason; and James Cromwell is impossible to separate from James Cromwell in the role of George H.W. Bush.

Stone comes closest to revelatory in the scenes in which W. consults with his church pastor, seeking to light his inner fire. Someone who went so single-mindedly in the directions Bush did must have felt some divine anointment. Stone aims to tie it all together in a series of fantasy interludes in which Bush stands before a stadium full of roaring baseball fans. It's high-concept and a noble attempt, but it's not the grandiose spiritual revelation audiences crave, particularly when it leaves the movie feeling as if it doesn't have an ending.

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