Regardless of any political or historical objections, there's no doubt that W is Oliver Stone’s most fluent and, more importantly, most entertaining film since U-Turn. Although it adopts a loose biopic structure, hopping between the events of 2002/03 and the rise of George W. Bush to power, it’s more of a meditation on two generations of the Bush family and the people and politics that surrounded them than a straightforward biography. For a left-wing liberal like Oliver Stone, it would have been easy to make a scathing attack on a president who was universally loathed by his opponents. But Stone takes the high road and delivers a thoughtful account of a deeply flawed but not entirely dishonourable man, who owed both his political position and his psychological flaws to his family.
The film would be unthinkable without Josh Brolin at its centre. His impersonation of Bush is uncannily accurate. He’s not physically unlike the former president but it’s the vocal inflexions and body language which ring so vitally true. Brolin manages to convincingly cover thirty years of the man’s life, taking him from an alcoholic braggart to the most important person in the Western world, and we believe the changes he portrays. In essence, like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, he portrays the inner life of the man – one with whom he obviously has little sympathy – and makes us not only accept it as truthful but sympathise with it. His Bush is intimidated by his family’s history; dominated by a father who is incapable of showing emotions and in the shadow of a brother who seemed to lack his character flaws. Initially, he turns to alcohol but increasingly, particularly once sobriety takes hold, he turns to religion in the form of evangelical Christianity and it is this which proves the making of him as it brings him into contact with the political genius and absolute spiritual certainty of Karl Rove (Jones). Bush has to change before our eyes and if it weren’t a historically well documented change, it would smack of cheap melodrama. But Brolin pulls it off. He’s particularly good in the scenes with his father, played well by James Cromwell – who seems to be cornering the market in emotionless patriarchs – where he adopts a bowed stance which is totally unlike him in the scenes with his political colleagues.
These colleagues are where the film cuts loose. If Brolin is emotionally affecting and convincing, his co-stars are witty and astute. Richard Dreyfuss is a dead-ringer for Dick Cheney and makes him an obsequious bean counter, while Scott Glenn unleashes a deadly smile as the viperish Donald Rumsfeld. Thandie Newton makes an amusing impression as a decidedly unsympathetic Condoleeza Rice and Stacy Keach – complete with lip-scar and shiny belt buckle – is an awesome presence as the preacher who brings the good book to Bush. But the best performances come from Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell – the real hero of the piece, arguing against a disastrous Iraq war and wondering why they aren’t going after the perpetrators of 9/11 rather than the usual suspects – and Toby Jones, who just gets better and better. Hard on the heels of his silky Swifty Lazaar in Frost/Nixon, Jones brings us a truly demonic vision of blind faith in the hands of the influential. Perhaps true believers might not find him so terrifying, but he certainly scares me and, incidentally, helps to explain how Bush managed to make it to two terms. Karl Rove was a political genius but his brilliance was also his flaw – ultimately, the certainty of being right blinded him to the change in political temperature in the USA.
The scenes where Bush and his colleagues debate the onset of a war against the “Axis of Evil” are where Stone’s political colours come to the fore. If the scenes about Bush’s politically development are surprisingly insightful and compassionate, the scenes in the war room are biting and would be satirical if we didn’t already know, thanks to numerous eyewitness accounts, that they were so accurate. Stone relishes the chance to tie his colours to the mast and presents Bush, Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld as the bad guys and Colin Powell as the voice of reason. It’s a remarkably lucid account of the path to war and is perhaps only let down by an insufficient portrayal of the role that religious fervour had to play in events. I suspect that people who aren’t evangelical Christians, including myself, find it hard to understand the very fundamental role it plays in the lives of those who are and would consequently find it dramatically ludicrous. Equally trenchant is a brief scene with Tony Blair – incarnated here by Ioan Gruffud whose performance is only marred by the viewer’s nagging feeling that he should look more like Michael Sheen.
Oliver Stone’s technique here is considerably less flashy than his work on JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon - which are, for me, the crown jewels of his career – but the stylistics have given way to a more graceful and self-effacing style that relies on swift storytelling, vivid acting and world-class editing. Stone’s camera is less restless than it once was but his set-ups are often inspired, especially those from Bush’s point of view. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is not quite up there with Robert Richardson’s work on Stone’s earlier films but has some lovely moments and the editing by Joe Hutshing and Julia Monroe is constantly brilliant. The only disappointment is Paul Cantelon’s music which doesn’t seem to quite fit the mood of the piece for much of the time and is certainly nothing like as good as his work on The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.
Much depends, of course, on whether one buys this view of George W. Bush. Stone has turned him into one of his typical protagonists – morally ambiguous, psychologically flawed and dominated and damaged by a domineering parent. My own view, and feel free to skip this editorialising, is that Bush was a bright, intelligent man who chose, following the impeccable example of Ronald Reagan, to adopt a public persona of brash stupidity in order to protect himself. His adoption of the dumb hick stereotype hid a shrewdness and evangelical determination which did more to damage the international reputation and internal culture of America than any political leader since Nixon and maybe even since Warren Harding. I don’t think that Stone captures this side of Bush – no doubt because he doesn’t share my views – but what he does manage to do is demonstrate that the public persona of a politician is merely half the story even if it is the half that gets them elected. That’s always a valuable lesson and in W, Stone teaches it with wit, humanity and insight.
Lionsgate’s release of W is an excellent DVD which offers a fine presentation of the film and some brief but interesting special features.
The 2.40:1 picture is gorgeous. There is a slight, beautifully film-like grain, stunningly rich colours and an abundance of detail. At some points, very grainy news footage is used which contrasts well with the fictional material. The only soundtrack offered is a 5.1 mix. This isn’t a film which offers a particularly dynamic sound experience but the talk is always very clear and that’s the most important thing.
There’s a very nice collection of special features, one which is rather more generous than was present on the Region 1 disc. The centrepiece is a typically excellent commentary track from Oliver Stone which displays an impressive intellectual range and political insight. It’s rather better on the ideas behind the film than on details of the production but most people will find this a stimulating and fascinating listening experience.
Two featurettes are included; Dangerous Dynasty about the Bush family and No Stranger To Controversy which looks at Oliver Stone’s portrayal of George W. Bush. The former is a little disappointing since it’s largely one-sided and ideologically slanted in favour of the left. The latter is better, examining Stone’s working methods and elucidating his view of Bush as the product of his lineage.
There’s a collection of deleted scenes, most of them expendable apart from the superb full version of Bush’s encounter with Tony Blair which should never have been cut in the first place. There’s an optional commentary track from Stone to accompany these.
Finally, DVD-Rom users can access research notes and annotations to the film which are encoded for Adobe Acrobat. More than anything else, this emphasises the astonishing amount of research done for the film and reflects well on the filmmaker’s intentions.
The film is divided into a rather paltry 12 chapter stops and subtitles are available for the main feature but not for any of the extra features.
W is a surprising, funny and entertaining film which should appeal to a far wider audience than simply those who are interested in recent politics. Lionsgate’s DVD is very pleasing and well worth a look.