Few filmmakers have to sell a subject as unpopular as the one Oliver Stone tackles with his latest cinematic "history lesson." But you've endured eight years of President George W. Bush, Stone seems to say with his new biopic, W., so what's two more hours?
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Stone plays things pretty much straight down the middle in this drama about how a slacker alcoholic found Jesus — and a way to impress his impossible-to-please dad. Stone cuts past the media cliché images of Bush and his circle, not questioning their motives, exploring their rationales, the fear the people who allowed a 9/11 on their watch have of allowing another.
The filmmaker leaves Sept. 11 out of his narrative, framing much of the film within the hours leading up to the "axis of evil" and "yellowcake uranium" speech, flashing back to show us the drunken, language-mangling frat boy with a gift for remembering names, inventing nicknames, and memorizing speeches and talking points.
Josh Brolin gives a career-making performance as Bush, swaggering and staggering from Yale through aimless years of short-term jobs (the Air National Guard is referenced, guiltily), bailed out of one mess after another by his stern, patrician father. James Cromwell manages the nasal whine of Bush Sr. as he lectures his wastrel son, "Junior."
"Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?"
Junior doesn't turn smart or sober when he meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks, also very good). But he does gain ambition. Losing his first U.S. House race to a conservative Democrat, he resolves "never to be out-Texaned or out-Christianed again." Stone gives us Bush's Road to Damascus moment, hyper ventilating himself into a Christian conversion during his daily jog. Stacy Keach is perfectly convincing as the preacher who prays with him as he sobers up, and he is as shocked as anybody when Bush announces his "call" to higher office.
All this is intercut with Bush administration haggling over how far the president can go in selling the nation and the world on his plan to invade Iraq. Bruce McGill's CIA chief George Tenet is the picture of put-upon frustration, a man belittled by Bush and Co. even as he repeatedly demands that assertions of Iraqi nuclear capabilities be removed from the big speech.
W. is a film whose performances range from vivid interpretations to uncanny impersonations, with Jeffrey Wright giving us a testy Colin Powell willing to mix it up with people he disagrees with, Richard Dreyfuss suggesting a less Darth Vaderish Dick Cheney than his image, and Thandie Newton matching the pinched voice and flinch we've seen in Condoleezza Rice every time she's faced with the accusation that she let Sept. 11 happen.
It doesn't stand with Stone's acknowledged masterpieces. The history is too fresh and under-digested. And it lacks the larger, obsessive purpose of JFK and especially Nixon, a presidential bio-film that Stone has beefed up to more than 31/2 hours for a new election-year anniversary DVD. But W. does show a master filmmaker plunging into the history and politics that have been his passion for much of his career, even if he has made a movie that will no more please the last Americans with "W" stickers on their bumpers than it will amuse the "Why wasn't he impeached?" crowd.