W

   Fair warning to conservatives: I am not even going to try and hide my politics in this review. W is a political film that comes from a left leaning viewpoint and consequently I have to describe how the film relates to my own left leaning tendencies. If you’re offended, tough.
   That being said, when I heard about this project, I was dubious. For one thing Bush’s story isn’t even over yet; we don’t know how it ends. Oliver Stone is going to feel pretty foolish if Bush bombs Iran or something in the next three months. And obviously, waiting and getting perspective on the Bush presidency wasn’t important to Stone or he wouldn’t have made this film now.
   I also hesitated because, I just didn’t want to live through those years again. From the start I knew that invading Iraq was a huge mistake. I remember sitting in the airport bar in Key West just before the invasion, heatedly telling my best friend that it would distract us from Afghanistan, where Al Queda actually is and where we dare not fail. It is so frustrating to remember how Bush and his aids deliberately ignored and distorted facts and how the press let them.
   Then there is the Oliver Stone problem. Frankly, he hasn’t made many movies that interest me. Looking over a list of his films, I’ve only been interested enough to see a handful and most of them I haven’t liked much although Platoon is a masterpiece. I think he sees himself as a provocateur, and any label like that limits an artist. He is also not known for subtlety and that’s what really frightened me about him making a film about George W. Bush. Political satire applied with a blunt instrument doesn’t sound like a good time to me.
   Which makes it all the more surprising that Oliver Stone has made an evenhanded and sensitive biopic that almost–almost–makes you feel sorry for its subject. Stone and writer Stanley Weiser have taken incidents and dialog directly out of the many books and news stories about the run up to the Iraq war and about Bush’s early years and woven them into a narrative that tries to explain the man behind all those disastrous decisions. What he concludes is that Bush was a dude, not very accomplished or remarkable as far as intelligence goes (although he’s not the dummy many of us on the left assume he is) who tries to prove to his domineering father that he’s worthy. How close this is to the truth we’re never going to know.
   The key to any biopic is the performance of the actor playing the subject and Josh Brolin nails it. His Bush impersonation isn’t perfect, in fact sometimes when he makes a gesture or delivers a line that’s too close to his subject, it draws you out of the movie. But overall it is a masterful performance. He shows the vulnerable side of Bush, a man we don’t generally think of as having one. And you understand his resentment towards his father.
   The other perfomances from a good cast are good to awful. In general those who tried to capture the essence of their subjects and not do an imitation did better. Richard Dreyfuss captures the quiet menace of Dick Cheney perfectly. James Cromwell looks nothing like the first President Bush, but somehow captures his calm decisiveness and the dedication to public service that is the trademark of the Bush clan. Ellen Burstyn shows us a combative side of Barbara Bush we never suspected. But Jeffrey Wright, a great actor, by the way, tries to channel Colin Powell and only manages to look like he’s playing the general in a Saturday Night Live skit. Thandie Newton’s Condoleeza Rice is so affected and phony it almost ruins the movie. And I don’t know what Scott Glenn was trying to do with Donald Rumsfeld, but it didn’t work.
   It’s always good to be pleasantly surprised by a movie as I was with W. It didn’t change my mind about the man, of course. W is a movie and movies create their own realities, even if based on true stories like this one. Stone defied expectations and gave Bush a fair portrait. Which is more than I would have done. I believe that Bush and his advisors planned to invade Iraq before 9/11, even before the 2000 election. It was always the plan.
   You see conservatives, I warned you.

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