Lionsgate // 2008 // 129 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 10th, 2009
"The fact is you can't win. Because you're too much like me. You're loud and you've got a short fuse." -- Barbara Bush to W. on his political chances
Oliver Stone's W. is such an ambitious film that it's almost tempting to award it maximum points just for trying. Like Stone's earlier film Nixon (1995), it's about a fiercely controversial and divisive president. Also like Nixon, it attempts to explain the decisions a president makes through his past. The similarities end there, however. With the exception of Watergate, much of Nixon's presidency has faded into obscurity. Here, on the other hand, is a film about the most dissected and analyzed presidency in U.S. history. Yes, Lincoln has had more books written about him so far, but every second of Bush 43's term in office has been scrutinized right down to the minutest detail, thanks to the 24-hour news networks, the Internet, the talk-radio circuit, and, of course, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. What possible new perspective could Stone bring to this film? Does it really add something that hasn't been said before? The answer, surprisingly, is that it does, to a degree. W. is not entirely successful in fully getting to the core of the man, but viewers who watch will find an entertaining and enthralling film that explains W.'s decisions in a more coherent and thoughtful manner than most right-wing hagiographies or left-wing eviscerations ever could.
W. is told in two interweaving stories. In the first, George W. Bush (Josh Brolin, American Gangster), is the son of ambitious Congressman and future President George H.W. "Poppy" Bush (James Cromwell, Babe) and his wife Barbara (Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist). Though the Bushes are one of the most respected and prestigious political families in America, W. is a screw-up, continuously getting in trouble and failing at every job he tries. He attempts to pull his life together and prove himself to his father when he meets librarian Laura Welch (Elizabeth Banks, Spider-Man).
In the second story, W., as president, plots in 2002 with his Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws) to invade Iraq. While Secretary of State Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat) and CIA director George Tenet (Bruce McGill, The Insider are both reluctant, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs) and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris, The Education of Charlie Banks) are eager to invade. Political advisor Karl Rove (Toby Jones, Infamous) and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton, Mission: Impossible 2) are more interested in helping W. politically than providing him with alternatives. Consequently, all agree to assist W. in his plan to topple Saddam Hussein and launch the war that will define his presidency.
There's a recurring image in W. that's used to tie the two parallel stories together. It depicts W., alone in a suit and tie and wearing a catcher's mitt, standing out in center field of a baseball stadium. In one scene, W. tells Poppy that standing out in center field is the happiest and most relaxing pastime he can imagine. At the beginning of the film, W. finds enormous pleasure in his favorite spot imagining the crowds cheering for him. At the end, even his favorite place cannot provide the solace he craves. In one sense, he succeeded in his goals; from now on, whenever someone hears the Bush name, they will definitely think of him before they think of his father. Contemplating his life, though, he begins to realize what a Pyrrhic victory he has really won.
The trick to W. is that it's less about W. the president and more about W. the man. That sounds like a simple idea, but it really isn't. The film doesn't really explore every nuance of Bush's presidency. It ends in May 2004, months before he won his second term, and it narrowly focuses on Iraq and the so-called "War on Terror." Instead, it's more about how W.'s past resulted in those decisions. It makes clear how the intense and complex rivalries, tensions, and relationships within the Bush clan made him the president we know him to be.
By far the biggest influence depicted in W. is W.'s tangled relationship with his father, Poppy. W. clearly reveres Poppy, who's everything he isn't, even as an adult. Poppy is a decorated war hero and a star athlete who easily succeeds at both business and politics. W. is only a cheerleader and a mediocre student, continuously bouncing from job to job without making any progress. At the same time, he deeply resents that Poppy is always the one who has to bail him out, and is desperate to prove that he can not only stand on his own two feet but will live up to the legacy of the Bush name that Poppy continuously reminds him of. The pivotal scene in which Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld explain to W. their grandiose plans for democratizing Iraq and then revamping the Middle East in America's image assumes even greater significance in this context. It's not just that in deposing Hussein W. will surpass his father by completing the job that, as he says in another scene, Poppy left unfinished. It's that in implementing these mind-boggling plans, W. will not only surpass his father and every other U.S. president in history, but will finally prove that he is the culmination of the much-vaunted Bush family heritage. Given his upbringing, it seems tragically inevitable what decision he chooses to make.
At the same time, W. gives W. his due by refusing to depict him as some sort of naïf or idiot. W. is impulsive and inarticulate, but he is, in every way, his own man who makes his own decisions and who forms his ideology carefully and lives by it. There's a great scene in which W., having decided to run for governor of Texas in 1994, is commiserating with Karl Rove about a disastrous press conference. As W. and Rove discuss how he needs to master the language of sound bites and one-liners for the press, it seems as if Rove is patronizing W. rather than helping him. That ends, however, when Rove makes the mistake of telling W. to call him when he needs to make policy decisions. W. quickly puts his foot down, stating bluntly that he alone makes policy decisions; it's Rove's job only to make those decisions sellable. It's a perfect refutation of the oft-repeated myth of W. as some sort of easily manipulated buffoon who never even ran his own administration.
W. works as well as it does in no small part because of the cast. Brolin only vaguely resembles Bush physically, but captures the personality Bush has revealed in public perfectly. It's not just his accent or his swagger; it's the way he uses even little things, from his penchant for nicknames to his deliberately crude table manners, all as a weapon of intimidation. Though Burstyn only has a few scenes, all of them are electric. Her depiction of Barbara Bush as the more abrasive and combative member of the Bush clan (it's Poppy who's more laid-back and detached) does a lot to explain W.'s aggressive personality. Cromwell, in the crucial role of Poppy, is equally impressive. He doesn't look or sound much like George H.W. Bush, but perfectly conveys his patrician aloofness and demeanor. Of the cast members playing W.'s cabinet, most do solid impressions, but a few stand out. Newton's version of Condi Rice paints a damning portrait of her as W.'s worst enabler: rather than "advising" him, she tells him only what he wants to hear. Glenn, for his part, gets many of the film's mordantly funny moments with his note-perfect portrayal of Rumsfeld's jaunty incompetence. The only underused cast member is Banks, who shows real depth as Laura Bush in her few scenes, but doesn't really get to do much. Nonetheless, the performances help make W. more complex and absorbing than the one-dimensional hatchet job many feared it would be.
The DVD does a solid job of presenting the film. The anamorphic 2.35:2 transfer is crisp and clean with no flaws and vivid colors. There are two mixes, for Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo, but the film is so dialogue-heavy that the two mixes are identical, apart from some bass-heavy explosions during a few Iraq War snippets and a couple of ambient crowd noises. Both mixes are equally good and show off the dialogue fully. The extras are decent. By far the best is the audio commentary by Stone. He always gives great commentaries, and while he doesn't quite talk as much about the production of the film as one would like, he does have plenty to say about the choices he made in what parts of Bush's story to include. It's a must for fans. Apart from the film's trailer, and a PDF file with some annotations and a bibliography, the only other extra is "Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Presidency" (17:47), a brief featurette on the two Bush eras. It's an unsatisfying catalog of Bush's transgressions, which is not surprising. Given that almost all of the interviewees are left-wing writers and journalists like Howard Zinn and Elizabeth Holtzman, with only a few token appearances by the ever-loathsome Robert Novak for balance, you won't be surprised to hear a lot of talk about impeachment (this was before the '08 elections) and war crimes. Unless you're a rabid ideologue, skip it with no regrets.
In attempting to explain the psychological makeup of Bush, W. does only half the job. The film makes clear why W. is as fiercely competitive and ambitious as he is, but it leaves out the second aspect of W.'s personality: his intellectual rigidity. Near the end of the film, there's a key scene during a 2004 press conference. The jubilation of the invasion of Iraq has turned into the horrific bloodbath of the occupation, and W. has just held a series of disastrous meetings in which he gets no satisfactory answers as to why the war has turned sour. During the press conference, a reporter asks W. if there are any mistakes he can recall making during his first term, and he responds with a long-winded stream of consciousness monologue that essentially boils down to "No." This stubborn refusal to deviate in any way from his ideological moorings, even when he knows they're not working, fits perfectly with the Bush we've seen in office, but the film falters in explaining where it comes from. In his commentary, Stone asserts that W.'s insistence on his righteousness is a natural outgrowth of all the years he spent as the black sheep of the Bush family, but the film doesn't really make this clear. In this case, an extra scene or line of dialogue to develop this point more would have been immensely helpful.
This leads to the one flaw of the DVD. On the commentary, Stone refers to several scenes that were deleted, but sadly none of them are included anywhere on the disc. Nor, for that matter, are there any interviews with the cast, who would have surely had many interesting thoughts to share on how they approached playing their roles. It's probable that Lionsgate will double-dip this title later on with the deleted scenes and new interviews included and a fancy new label reading "Unrated Director's Cut!," which is incredibly offensive. Do the job right the first time, and don't punish fans with cheap stunts like that.
W. isn't quite the operatic masterpiece that Nixon was, but that's only because Nixon's personality was far larger and more tragic than W.'s. As depicted here, W. isn't a man with potential greatness unrealized, but rather a man whose ambition and luck far exceeded his abilities. W. doesn't let Bush off the hook, but even his harshest detractors will be able to understand his personality better after watching this film. Highly recommended.
W. is not guilty through mostly realized ambition. Lionsgate is guilty of not putting together a fully comprehensive DVD package for a deserving film.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* PDF Guide
* Official Site