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W. (2008) November 7, 2008

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , trackback

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Taking dark and complicated presidential situations and spotlighting them over an epic running length has become somewhat of a calling card for the man who brought both the disgraced Richard Nixon, and a probing look at the JFK assassination, to our screens in the early nineties.  Oliver Stone returns to those roots here, with the first movie to be made about a sitting president.  It’s not as if he’s short of material either - this presidency has been packed with enough controversy and scandal to justify a three-plus-hour dissection.  And yet, the final film is little like what you would expect: light, funny, and a just single sitting in length.

Jumping back and forth between past and recent-present, we are introduced to a college-age wild-child, whose drinking and troublesome frat-boy antics are a bit of a black spot on the good family name.  His name is George Bush, and he’s determined not to disappoint his father, even if it seems like that’s all he can do.  Flash forward to 2002 and he’s president of the most powerful nation in the world, making decisions that will potentially put lives at risk, and his family’s name on the line.   George wonders if he can win his father’s approval by finishing the job he began over a decade ago.  The real question is: should we even be starting?

Despite this topical plot, the most notable feature of the film is just how fair it is about sticking to its subject without getting bogged down in the issues.  The film is titled ‘W.’ and so it keeps its gaze firmly fixed on the personality at hand, never blinking or wandering, even as the well publicized events of the past few years start to escalate.  I would stop short of calling it completely balanced, but it’s certainly a much more even-handed film than many were expecting, and in no way a tearing down of the man, or his beliefs.

In fact, it’s George’s beliefs that are very much at the centre of this film; the most prevalent of which stems from a father / son story that forms a majority of the background content, and informs much of the present.  While I suspect that it is also the most over-dramatised subject, there are some nice lines drawn between their differing attitudes to wartime strategy, and the painful quest for approval.  More insightful are the small flashback scenes that set his current reputation into context: “I’ll never be out Texan-ed, or out Christian-ed again”, says Bush after losing out on a Texas governor position.

The younger-years material is consistently more perceptive and clearly the main draw, especially as everything post-2001 is already well documented in the public consciousness.  We focus almost exclusively on the Iraq war for the modern day scenes, which leaves a few potentially fascinating areas unexplored (namely two almost unmentioned presidential elections which could be the subject of movies in their own right).  A couple of Bush’s more famous verbal gaffs turn up, sometimes under slightly different contexts; more interesting, however, is the backroom frustration he shows after fluffing a press conference question about the failures of Iraq.  These moments are the ones that stand out, as they smartly break down the perception that Bush is ignorant of his self-humiliation.

Bringing these emotional highs and lows into sharp perspective is a standout central performance by Josh Brolin.  The man who so impressed in No Country for Old Men [review] puts in a stellar turn, leaping recognisably into the shoes of a man whose mannerisms and facial expressions are known the world over.  Kudos to the make-up department too, as the physical resemblance both in youth, and with age, maintains the visual illusion very effectively.  The supporting cast is full of quality performers, including Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright playing Colin Powell, James Crowell taking on George Bush Sr. and, probably best of all, Toby Jones as long-term advisor Carl Rove.  Most ironic casting goes to Rob Corddry, whose direct association with The Daily Show and their frequent mocking of the Bush administration, means he raises a smile in a small role as press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Most surprising is how open Oliver Stone has allowed his perspective to be.  Even when detailing Bush’s wilder ways during college, he never plays it for anything more than disorderly young rebellion, rather than a judgemental statement of disapproval.  The director holds tightly onto his film though, and controls the action with all the skill of a man who has been making movies for three decades.  It’s not a particularly flashy movie to look at, but it doesn’t need to be, and this knowledge helps bring simple charm to the scenes where we get a wide-angle shot of Brolin in the Oval Office, or leading his party of advisors on a stride through the desert.

All in all, W. (or ‘Dub-ya’, as we should probably refer to it) is a solid piece of work from Stone, who, maybe unknowingly, has made a film that almost directly follows up his similarly controversy-free World Trade Center [review].  With a fantastic central performance from Josh Brolin, as well as a smart script by writer Stanley Weiser, the movie does an excellent job of humanising a character both built and destroyed by media dissection.  There’s no doubt that his actions and decisions were wrong, and the film goes no way to hiding this fact; but what really surprises is how admirably the film reigns itself away from the obvious, striking a tone that neatly treads the line between becoming a stone-faced analysis of ineptitude, or an outright comic farce.

W. is on UK general release from today.


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