Lionsgate // 2008 // 129 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 10th, 2009
A life misunderestimated.
Oliver Stone is known as a "biased" filmmaker, and W. is one of the most polarizing figures to emerge in the modern era, so I think it only fair that I begin with my own prejudices towards the man. I'm convinced that the Bush administration significantly mismanaged nearly every single major operation it undertook, curtailing civil rights and wasting money on the illusion of victory in the Middle East while deceiving U.S. citizens and the world about both motives and facts. I don't think that George W. Bush is personally responsible for every evil his administration perpetrated, but I think he symbolizes a dangerously reckless attitude towards the world at large that, frankly, scares me.
Oliver Stone, known as a liberal in most circles, seems like the perfect person to skewer Bush in the waning days of his administration with this biopic, W. However, the case is not so cut and dried. Instead of an outright crucifixion of Bush, Stone opts for a subtle approach, allowing the president's actions to speak for themselves. It makes for a relatively satisfying film cinematically, but offers only the dimmest insight into the Bush presidency or Stone's view on this era.
Most of the plot of W. centers around the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Between the strategy sessions of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men), we get glimpses into his earlier life as a frat guy, a failed businessman, and eventually governor of Texas as he tries to win the approval of George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell, L.A. Confidential).
Most good biopics have a strong "take" on the life they present. In the case of W., Stone seems to present Colin Powell as the knight in shining armor who gives the voice of reason on invading Iraq. On the other side, Dick Cheney is the film's villain, offering a hard line on terrorism, consequences be damned. Stuck in the middle is simple George, whose real ambition is to impress his distant, impossibly successful father. Although W. tells his wife (after losing his first bid for office) that he'll never be out-Christianed or out-Texased again, the film plays Bush's late-life religious conversion and sobriety seriously, representing Bush as a man of faith who prays after every meeting with his staff. However, the film also doesn't flinch when it comes to some of Bush's more famous verbal missteps, like "I'm the decider," and "misunderestimated."
What reads as balanced on the page comes off as sluggish on the screen. While watching I got the feeling that if any particular scene went on for an extra beat, Bush would crucify himself, but the film never lets him go off the rails like that. In many ways this feels like Oliver Stone-lite, where all the pieces are assembled to slaughter Bush's legacy, but they're never brought into play. Instead the film focuses on Bush's daddy issues. A number of reviews I've seen claim that W. becomes sympathetic through this film's portrayal, but I have to disagree. His disturbing blend of born-again Christianity and patriarchal disapproval make W. an understandable, but not sympathetic figure. Even if Stone's motive is to make this titanic figure understandable, to render his motives transparent, the film fails by refusing to include any of the paranoid suspicions that drove JFK. Even though W. is the obvious puppet of Cheney in this film, the story offers no other motive than the attempt to gain approval, and that just seems implausible in the face of all the history surrounding the invasion of Iraq.
A biopic that fails to provide a compelling portrait of its subject should probably be consigned to the dustbin of history. This would be W.'s fate if it weren't for two significant facts:
Oliver Stone knows where to put a camera and edit a picture. There's little of flash viewers have come to expect from films like The Doors or JFK, but the camera movements and editing of W. suggest the sure hand of a master. Even though I was less than impressed with the characterization of W., I was never bored by the pace of the film or the lack of something interesting to look at.
Oliver Stone knows how to attract talented actors. There's been some talk before, but with W. Josh Brolin enters the upper echelon of film actors. This performance is flawless in every single way and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with astonishing performances like De Niro as Travis Bickle. Luckily, Brolin (like Oswald, Stone might say) is not acting alone. Elizabeth Banks plays a stunning Laura Bush, making it plausible that someone would marry W. for anything other than money or political expediency. James Cromwell is suitably imperious as Bush Sr., and Richard Dreyfuss takes a rather Iago-like turn as Dick Cheney. While some of the actors look remarkably like their characters (the unrecognizable Thandie Newton as Condeleeza Rice is top of the list), what's more important is that each actor seems to have created a complete character so that their physical differences from these often-famous figures is unimportant. W. is certainly one of the finest ensembles put together for a film this decade.
These two simple facts make W. worth watching no matter what your feelings about Bush or Stone might be.
Although I wasn't too happy with the presentation of George W. Bush, I have little to complain about with the presentation of W. on Blu-ray disc. The film's 2.35:1 transfer is unsurprisingly free of damage, and there appear to be no difficulties with compression. The occasional dark scenes are free from noise, while colors in the brighter scenes pop quite nicely. The film features some of Stone's most subtle use of music, with only the occasional pop song and diagetic sound on the DTS track. That means the 7.1 channels are a little wasted, but it's a pleasing soundscape.
For extras, there's the typically informative commentary with Oliver Stone. He's an excellent speaker and doesn't shy away from discussing his subject or the film's production. Although it's a little early to make a definitive statement, the next extra is "Dangerous Dynasty: The Bush Legacy," which inter-cuts news segments from the Bush administration with comments by famous individuals like Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal. It's a little too short, but provides some excellent insights into the context of the film. The other big extra is a making-of entitled "No Stranger to Controversy: Oliver Stone's George W." Here we get 16 minutes worth of interviews with Stone, Brolin, and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, although this felt too short as well. There are some deleted scenes with commentary by Stone, including an additional dream sequence. Finally, the film's trailer finishes up the extras.
Bush haters will likely be disappointed by W.'s refusal to lambaste the former president. Bush lovers will likely be disappointed that there isn't more "Rah-rah. We Love America" included in the film. The only people likely to leave satisfied are film fans who could care less about Bush but want to see some of the best actors in the business at the top of their game. Although the extras feel a bit thin, this Blu-ray of W. is easy to recommend on its technical merits.
W. is guilty of not revealing enough about its complicated subject, although both Stone and his actors are acquitted on the merits of their performances.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Research/Annotation Guide