Monday, November 03, 2008

Review - W.

Just what is Oliver Stone trying to accomplish with W., his perplexing study of current US president George Walker Bush? Should we take the film as a straight drama, a parody or a satire? Stone flirts with various approaches throughout the picture without ever settling on one. And what are we to make of the timing? W. was rushed through production this summer to arrive in American cinemas just a few weeks before the nation goes to the polls to elect their 44th president (by the time it appears in the UK, the matter will already be settled) and whenever discussion turns to the 43rd, most people are just glad to see the back of him. Perhaps W. is best viewed as a curiosity, as a document of an odd American story, when an under-qualified man inexplicably rose to the highest office in the land, and made a complete hash of things when he got there. For the average cinemagoer, however, its value is more recognisable – this is the most dramatically coherent and entertaining work Oliver Stone has produced for many years.

That's not to say W. is Stone's best film, it's not even close. For all of their flaws, pictures like JFK, Nixon, Any Given Sunday or Born on the Fourth of July have a bombastic sense of daring and complexity that shames W., and this picture lacks the kind of emotional thrust the younger Stone brought to Salvador and Platoon. But after disastrous missteps like Alexander and World Trade Centre, we can take pleasure in the simple things W. gets right; the fact that it is competently directed, highly enjoyable and supremely well acted throughout. Josh Brolin is Stone's Bush, and the film follows his development from the black sheep of the family – a drunken, directionless youth – through his spiritual awakening and governorship of Texas, his first term in office, and right up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That's the period W. covers, but what's possibly more interesting are the events Stone has chosen to ignore. 9/11 takes place off-camera, the 2000 election barely merits a mention, and the film ends before Hurricane Katrina, which is arguably as damning an indictment of the Bush administration as Iraq.

Instead, W. plays as one long oedipal conflict, between Bush and his domineering father (played by James Cromwell). In Stone's thesis, Bush's rise to the top has been propelled by the need to prove himself to the old man, and even to exceed him, with Bush Snr.'s failure to finish Saddam Hussein off in the first Gulf War being a key motivation behind his son's invasion. W.'s early scenes see Bush drinking and carousing and failing to hold down any of the jobs his father's contacts set up for him. "Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?" his dad asks during another angry dressing-down, "You're a Bush. Act like one", and Dubya's situation isn't eased by his brother Jeb, whose steady rise seems to constantly put him in the shade. This relationship, between father and son, forms the backbone of W. – Stone keeps returning to it again and again, as if it holds the key that will provide all of the answers to the Dubya conundrum – and he even stages one late dream sequence, wherein the elder Bush appears in the Oval Office and picks a fight with his now-president son. If these scenes succeed, and they mostly do, it is because Stanley Weiser's screenplay contains some sharply written confrontations, and the actors are excellent, but this narrative thread is far from W.'s most potent element.

W. is at its most compelling and incisive whenever Stone focuses on Bush's time inside the White House, and the film opens in the Oval Office, where Bush and his advisors are meeting to discuss potential terms for the countries they have deemed a threat to America ("How about Axis of Weasels?" Karl Rove, played by Toby Jones, wryly suggests). Most of the best moments in W. occur in scenes like this, that depict the inner workings of the administration, which Stone has re-imagined in a plausible and intriguing way, and the level of performance in these sequences is top-notch. Stone has assembled a first-rate cast to portray these figures, with the actors often bearing an eerie resemblance to the people they're playing, while rarely slipping into easy mimicry. Richard Dreyfuss is great as a sinister, shark-like Dick Cheney; Thandie Newton nails Condoleezza Rice better than anyone could have expected; while the always-great Jeffrey Wright draws a real sense of pathos from his performance as Colin Powell, depicted as calm voice of reason who goes against his own beliefs, and eventually follows orders like a good soldier. Not all of the casting decisions pay off – Ioan Gruffud is an awkwardly unconvincing Blair (where was Michael Sheen?) – but taken as a whole the ensemble work in this picture is remarkable.

As good as these supporting turns are, however, Josh Brolin is astounding. Just as Anthony Hopkins did with Richard Nixon, Brolin overcomes the lack of physical resemblance to the man he's playing by delving deep within himself to pull out a real performance, not an impersonation. He builds the character from the inside out, ensuring there is a sense of depth and development underneath the vocal tics and mannerisms that he has mastered. His relationship with wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks, excellent if underused) is warm and touching, and he is particularly impressive in the private moments: watch him just after he loses the Texas congressional seat to Kent Hance, for example, or the "Road to Damascus" moment just before renouncing drink and finding God. Late in the picture, Stone present the press conference in which Bush was asked to name his biggest mistakes, and we watch for an agonisingly long period as he gropes for an answer. "I don’t want to sound like I haven’t made no mistakes, I’m confident I have, it’s just that I haven’t... you really put me on the spot here, John. Perhaps I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one... but... uh..." Bush mumbles and sputters, and Stone's tight camera angles make us share in his queasy embarrassment. The scene isn't played for laughs, though, and instead the effect is one of sympathy for a man totally out of his depth. Such a sense of empathy will undoubtedly come as a major shock to those who expected Stone's Bush biopic to be a hatchet job, for W. takes a surprisingly even-handed view of its subject. It depicts him as a well-intentioned but hopelessly na├»ve goof, who was easy prey for the warmongers among his inner circle. Throw in a dollop of daddy issues and that's as far as the psychological portrait of Bush goes, but at least Stone has genuinely tried to get to grips with this character, to flesh him out, and to find out what makes him tick.

Perhaps W. is ultimately defeated by its lack of perspective, and one can't help imagining the picture Stone might have made a few years down the line, when he could take a breath and assess the whole of Bush's presidency at a distance. The film bears all the hallmarks of a picture made in a hurry, with much of it being painted in broad strokes and plenty of areas in which the editing could have been tightened; and without the great Robert Richardson behind the camera, W. lacks the expressive visual scheme of JFK or Nixon. But W. does feel accurate and honest – unlike the revisionist approach to history Stone has been accused of in the past – and if it achieves anything, it makes us take a fresh look at the man who will shortly be departing office after a bewildering eight years. George W. Bush's legacy as president has been defined by war, unrest, financial meltdown, skulduggery and general incompetence, and W. stands as a flawed but fascinating record of a very weird period in American history. Weird, with a capital Dubya.