As his second term as the 43rd President of the United States concludes in national financial upheaval, the real George W. Bush is a figure more confounding and complex than any dramatist is likely to conjure, either in tragedy or comedy. It takes a showman doing a heckuva job, armed with that bipartisan quality called chutzpah, to even try. Enter Oliver Stone, stage leftish.
In W., the un-shy filmmaker (who, in JFK and Nixon, made big-screen entertainment out of presidents only after they left office) attempts to do for a sitting Commander-in-Chief what a parade of journalists, psychoanalysts, pundits, theologians, talk-show hosts, and bloggers have not yet been able to accomplish: synthesize compassion and criticism, satire and sympathy, and put the flawed man in the context of personal history and global consequence. Stone doesn't pull off the experiment either he's a blustery, big-gesture movie guy working on a proudly tight shooting schedule, not a patient, precise biographer aiming at wisdom for the ages. And I suspect W. will look like an even skimpier drama-club production by Jan. 20, 2009, when the real W. exits the White House, stage right. But there is a certain irresistible time-capsule interest to Stone’s uneven project. Both in front of and behind the camera, from creators and characters alike, this movie has got the fascinating, clumsy rhythms of blind men (they’re mostly men) trying to describe an elephant (a Republican pachyderm), bravely fronted by one intrepid explorer with his eyes wide open, looking for nuance.
The intrepid one is the outstanding Josh Brolin, who does such a phenomenal job in the title role that he carries every scene he's in to a place of subtlety and integrity far beyond what Stone needs to make his attention-grabbing noise. Brolin is clearly party leader nailing Bush's posture and gestures without stooping to easy mannerism, conveying the contradictions of a polarizing president with real generosity, inflecting every trademark heh-heh with a reason for being that makes the old heh-heh sound new. But with every decision except his trust in Brolin, Stone settles for an easier path, counting on a friendly audience to laugh, cringe, or despair ahead of cue so he doesn't have to commit to his own attitudes about the man he's ''studying'' with supposed dispassion. His approach is a weaselly approximation of fair and balanced. The director fixes on the fumbles and entitlements of an intellectually incurious son struggling to please a disappointed patrician father as the Freudian through-line in a Greek tragedy/SNL comedy; then he strings together reenactments of various specific events in the younger Bush's life, assuming, I guess, that they'll somehow accumulate and coagulate mixing with what that friendly audience knows about Bush into a larger picture of a screwed-up guy who screwed up.
But those vignettes don't accrue effectively, not least in fantasy sequences during which Bush (who at one time aspired to be the commissioner of baseball) imagines himself in his own field of dreams, accepting the approving roar of an imaginary stadium crowd. (The chuckleheaded script is by Stanley Weiser, a longtime Stone collaborator who wrote Wall Street.) The moments Stone and Weiser select to sketch Bush's character are more of a jumble than a natural progression. ''Junior'' endures a fraternity hazing; he meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks, a gentle presence); he hates and needs the help the bailout! of his father-the-former-president, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell, at a rare loss for clarity); he stops drinking and finds spiritual rebirth in evangelical Christianity. Of course, he also decides to invade Iraq in 2003, with thumbs up from Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton, on the far side of parody), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), and George Tenet (Bruce McGill), while Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) plays the wildly simplified role of designated Republican-with-a-conscience. Oh, and Stone also adds the scene where Bush chokes on a pretzel while watching sports on TV at the White House. Why? Because it's a cheap laugh.
At least Brolin is never cheap. Representing a man who finds both salvation in Jesus and relief that one of his intelligence reports is only three pages long, the actor digs deep. He's the A in W., heh-heh. The rest is C+.
For more on W. and politics in pop culture:
Josh Brolin on playing Bush
Oliver Stone talks ''W.''
First Look: 'W,' Oliver Stone's Bush Biopic
Elizabeth Banks chats about Laura Bush role
16 Political Movies We Endorse
Obama-McCain Pop-Culture Debate