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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'W.': Oliver Stone takes aim at George Bush--and misses

October 7, 2008 | 12:29 pm

WIf anyone was born to make a movie about George W. Bush, it's Oliver Stone. They're almost eerily like twin brothers, separated at birth. Born into wealthy families barely two months apart in 1946, they both had silver-spoon upbringings in wealthy Episcopalian families, chafing under and ultimately rebelling against the influence of two successful, overbearing fathers. They both went to Yale, where they were indifferent students (Stone quickly left) and had years of struggle and failure before finding their callings. Of course, there are key differences--Bush avoided military service while Stone joined the infantry and spent 18 months in Vietnam beginning in April 1967, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for bravery.

So it's no surprise that Stone not only ended up making a film about his doppelganger but focused on a theme that perhaps struck close to home: the psychological burden of being the unappreciated son of an overpowering father. The relationship between son and father is the key to "W.," but unlike Stone's gut-wrenching movies about Vietnam (notably "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July"), "W." feels flat and strangely passionless, as if it were directed by someone who makes documentaries for the History Channel. Variety's Todd McCarthy just posted a mixed review, noting that the film is "overly conventional, especially stylistically ... unable to achieve any aims higher than as a sort of engaging pop-history pageant and amateur, if not inapt, psychological evaluation," with almost none of the bravura Stone touches that characterized his best work.

I think he's being too kind. The film is a mess. It picks and chooses which parts of the Bush story it wants to tell, skipping the drama of the 2000 election, almost entirely avoiding 9/11, focusing largely on the Iraq war and Bush's youthful escapades, early business failures and conversion to politics. It probably would've have been a much better piece of drama if Stone (and screenwriter Stanley Weiser) had ended the movie before Bush invades Iraq, since the real third act of Bush's life--if you're focusing on his tortured relationship with his father--is how such a rudderless, wildly underestimated lightweight could become an American president.

Instead, Stone bores us to tears with dreary docu-style scenes of White House meetings in the run-up to the Iraq war. The scenes feel accurate, to a fault; they capture everyone's policy positions correctly, but they lack any poetry or tragic drama. Judging from several scenes that Bush has, first with Dick Cheney, then with Karl Rove, Stone's major psychological insight seems to be that Bush treats all of his high-powered advisors like they were White House waiters--they are footmen, he's the careless prince. Stone clearly believes Bush guilty of hubris, of trying to undo his father's mistakes, but he never finds a dramatic underpinning to capture the heft and hidden ironies of that story. (Someone should ask Oliver why it's always so dark in the White House meeting rooms--is that a metaphor or was he trying to disguise how little money he had to spend on the sets?)

Stone's biggest failing is in his casting. For a director who's discovered so many gifted young actors over the years, Stone is really hurt by his poor choices of actors. Josh Brolin is believable as W, as is Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush. But most of the other roles feel like stiff impersonations or bad "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

In fact, most of the actors seem to be playing roles from other movies. The worst is Thandie Newton, who does Condi Rice as if she were channeling Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde." Scott Glenn acts like the poker-faced CIA guy he played in "The Bourne Ultimatum"--he doesn't have any of Donald Rumsfeld's swagger or arrogance. The normally fabulous Jeffrey Wright is totally miscast as Colin Powell. I couldn't place his accent, but the person I saw the movie with said it reminded him of Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder." Toby Jones has none of Rove's devious aplomb--he looks like an elfin sprite, as if he were still playing Truman Capote in "Infamous." Bruce McGill is god-awful as George Tenet. He goes around with a cigar in his mouth, as if he were a background goon in "Bugsy," not the head of the CIA.

That's the problem with doing history too soon--we see it as caricature, not as real cinematic storytelling. With the real Bush in eclipse in his last months in the White House, it's hard to imagine who will want to see this paper-thin dramatic re-creation of his grave missteps and misjudgments. Judging from how little impact Bush has had on correcting our current economic crisis, most people in America have seen enough of him to last a lifetime--they're not eager to revisit his rise to power and fall from grace at the local multiplex. Stone may still be obsessed with his evil twin, but the rest of us have moved on. 

Photographs by, from top, left to right, George Frey / AFP; Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire; Sidney Ray Baldwin / Lionsgate; Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times; Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press; Lawrence Jackson / Associated Press; Sidney Ray Baldwin / Lionsgate; Faleh Kheiber/Reuters Photographs.

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