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Despite some terrific trailers that had me excited, most of the reviews I’ve read of Oliver Stone’s W. were decidedly mediocre.  Nevertheless, I was very curious, so I decided that I needed to see the film for myself.

And I’m glad I did — I found the movie to be tremendously entertaining!  As you’ve all heard by now (this is the one element of the film that most critics have been excited about), Josh Brolin is terrific as George W. Bush.  Brolin walks the fine line between imitating the President and inhabiting him.  This isn’t just Will Ferrell playing Dubya on SNL.  Not to knock Mr. Ferrell (who is a comic genius!!) but Brolin brings powerful life to his performance.  And this is critical, because Stone is asking the audience to spend two hours with this man who, ultimately, the movie evaluates as a failure.  That could make for very unpleasant viewing!  But Brolin, along with Stone, is able to balance the humor and the intense gravity of the situations throughout the film.

Stone has an interesting task in helming a biography of a sitting President, without the benefit of a decade or so of hindsight.  Most thinking Americans have their own opinions and evaluations of George W. Bush (I know I do), but it’ll be interesting to see how we look back on this man in 20-30 years.  Stone’s hypothesis (along with screenwriter Stanley Weiser) is that Bush is a man always chasing after his father’s approval, and always falling short.  Is this the truth?  It’s hard for me to say, but Stone certainly crafts a compelling case.

As George Herbert Walker Bush, James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential, Babe: Pig in the City, The Green Mile, and of course he’s also Jack Bauer’s papa) is a towering figure, and the strained relationship between these two men is the centerpiece of the film.  We feel the elder Bush’s love for his son, but more strongly do we feel his profound disappointment.  Many of the reviews I’ve read expressed some surprise that Stone’s film wasn’t more critical of George W Bush.  I’m not sure what movie those reviewers were watching, because to me this film is an evisceration of Dubya.  No, he’s not protrayed as a complete incompetent caricature.  But to me the figure-person for the audience, and for Stone, is George Herbert Walker Bush.  When he evaluates his son as a failure, that to me is what we the audience are supposed to feel — that evaluation is the statement of the film.  As I said, in that respect it feels like an evisceration.  As the film reminds us towards the end, this isn’t just a game — real people’s lives, literally, have been affected by this man.

But don’t get me wrong, the film is not a somber, depressing polemic.  (Well, you might feel depressed about the past eight years, depending on your political leanings… but if you do, you probably did well before seeing this movie!)  Much of the fun of the film is found in the many talented actors portraying all the well-known people in Bush’s circle.   Let’s start with Richard Dreyfuss, who is magnificent as Dick Cheney.  (The scene in which he lays out his ideas about where all the events in the Middle East are heading is the scariest thing I’ve seen in a movie theatre all year.)  Toby Jones is a riot as Karl Rove.  Then there’s Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush.  To me this was one of Stone’s most surprising casting decisions, but Banks pulls it off.  She brings a lot of charisma and intelligence to the role, and she really sells Laura’s affection for Dubya.  (Although the film never really demonstrates just what exactly she sees in him.)

Possibly the most devastating depicition of any of these Bushies is Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice.  She’s been picked on by many reviewers, and I will admit that of all the performances, hers is the one that leans closest to caricature.  To refer back to the barometer I used earlier, this is the performance that would fit in most easily on an SNL skit.  But to me that is what’s so striking about it.  When we see Thandie on screen, she does usually draw laughs.  But what a powerful attack on Dr. Rice that is, what a condemnation of her role in the Bush White House!  No, she is not a well-rounded character in the film… and perhaps that is a weakness.  But this film isn’t about Condoleeza Rice, it’s about George W. Bush.  And while I was a bit surprised at the disdain which the filmmakers seem to be showing towards Dr. Rice, if that was their aim then Lord knows they succeeded.

There are so many other actors deserving mention:  Bruce McGill (you’ll recognize him from a great many roles in movies and on TV — but to me he’ll always be Al the Bartender from the Quantum Leap finale) as George Tenet; Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff, The Hunt for Red October, The Silence of the Lambs) as Donald Rumsfeld; Jeffrey Wright (Syriana, Casino Royale) as Gen. Colin Powell; Rob Corddry (The Daily Show) in a small role as Ari Fleischer… and many, many more.  What an ensemble.

This movie isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about George W. Bush.  But I don’t think that was Oliver Stone’s intention.  What he’s done is give us his opinion about what makes Dubya tick.  You might agree, or you might disagree.  Either way, I suggest taking what’s seen in the movie with several generous grains of salt.  This isn’t fact — this is Mr. Stone’s opinion.  But has he wrapped that opinion up in an entertaining package?  To me, he certainly has, and that is what makes W. worth your time, and your hard-earned ticket money.

Check it out (if you can still find it playing in a theatre near you), and let me know if you agree!

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