Bush league: Oliver Stone scrutinizes U.S. president in 'W.'

Bob Tremblay

People expecting Oliver Stone to turn George Bush into a presidential pinata and whack him with a 2-by-4 in "W." will be deeply disappointed.

While the director doesn't exactly shower Bush with rose petals; he actually exercises restraint a word seldom associated with the man behind "JFK" and "Nixon" in a film that's more standard biopic than vicious broadside. That said, the film is still critical enough of the man, his insiders and his decisions that it's sure to draw criticism from Bush supporters. Expect right-wing mouthpieces to pillory the film even before they've seen it.

What even the most strident ideologue, from either the right or left, will see in "W." is an incredible performance by Josh Brolin in the title role. Brolin, so impressive in "No Country for Old Men," scores again here. He not only has Bush's look, speech pattern and mannerisms down, he injects a large dose of humanity into a president whose popularity these days has flatlined.

Brolin portrays Bush as a genuinely decent man who's clearly in over his head as president. He's also a man devoted to his wife, and a man who, after rebelling against his father in his younger days, wants only to gain his respect now that he's turned his life around.

In Stone's film, Bush's life veers into tragic territory. Like King Lear, he appears to be a man more sinned against than sinner, as his advisers, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), steer him toward bad decisions. The most disastrous of these is, of course, the Iraq war and the film spends plenty of time going behind the scenes to observe the machinations that went into this fateful act.

Cheney's discourse on establishing an empire in the Middle East is particularly disturbing and chilling. As portrayed by Dreyfuss complete with sideways sneer, Cheney makes Machiavelli look like Mickey Mouse. He's Iago to Bush's Othello and receives most of Stone's venom.

The lone voice of reason in this inner sanctum belongs to Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who warns of the war's repercussions but is ignored. While Cheney gets to play the heavy, Powell garners the most sympathy.

No such kindness is bestowed upon Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove. Rice, as played by Thandie Newton, comes across as a vapid sycophant, while Rove, in Toby Jones' performance, acts like a weasel in a bad suit.

When not throwing darts at Bush's warmongers, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser ("Wall Street") focus on Bush's contentious relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell). In one scene, after yet another descent into dissolution, Bush Sr. scolds his son for acting like a Kennedy. Yet parallels between the two clans definitely exist, including a hefty supply of sibling rivalry.

Bush Sr. is portrayed as a good man, too, though like his son, hampered by character flaws. While running for president against Michael Dukakis, he watches the incendiary Willie Horton ad used so effectively to smear his opponent and while his glum expression indicates he finds the ad distasteful, he doesn't have it pulled.

Laura Bush (Pittsfield's Elizabeth Banks) also gets the kid-glove treatment. She's a stand-by-your-man type, yet you have to believe there's more to her than husband devotion.

The film follows Bush from his alcohol-drenched youth to his forays into business, politics and baseball, accompanied by the prerequisite biopic ups and downs. Bush eventually finds love, God and the White House.

The main problem with "W." is that by acting in a restrained manner, Stone saps any sense of drama from the film. Yes, we see that the Iraq war decision was a farce. Yes, we see the father-son dynamic where son seeks father's approval. Will he ever get it? Do we care?

Stone stuffs all the biopic ingredients into "W." but fails to infuse them with a potent flavor. The film emerges like a dish that tastes alright but doesn't bowl over the tastebuds. Some might even prefer a Stone movie that leaves a sour taste in the mouth as long as it tries to be bold.

Instead "W." appears safe - yet another word seldom associated with Stone. The film's baseball metaphor with Bush standing in an empty stadium trying to keep his eye on the ball is forced and ineffective. Ditto for the dream fight sequence involving Bush and his father.

Though "W." is far from a great film, even mediocre Stone is better than what passes for most of mainstream cinema today. If anything, the film will provoke discussion in an election year. The right will likely complain that the entire film is a crock while the left will likely complain that Stone was too kind to Bush.

This critic only complains that Stone, by taking off his gloves, lost some of his punch.

"W." opens Friday.


Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss

Rated PG-13 (for sexual references, some alcohol abuse and brief disturbing war images) 129 minutes

Directed by Oliver Stone