Republicans may not see it this way -- heck, they probably won't see "W." at all -- but director Oliver Stone makes the 43rd president a more sympathetic figure than you might expect.
"W." portrays President Bush as a man yearning for the approval of his coldly formal father, a patrician more comfortable writing notes on expensive cardstock than having heart-to-heart talks. "No matter what I do, it's just never gonna be enough," George tells his wife, Laura, in a flashback about midway through the film.
When W. informs his parents he plans to run against incumbent Ann Richards, his mother snaps, "Governor of Texas? You must be joking!" His father can only think about how that will affect son Jeb's political career because, at its heart, "W." is like a historically rendered version of that old Smothers Brothers routine, "Mom always liked you best."
3 stars = Good
- Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks
- Rating: PG-13 for language, including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.
- Web site: Wthefilm.com
But here, it's Mom and Dad who always thought Jeb was the one destined for the White House, while George was the frat boy, cheerleader, drinker, womanizer and black sheep. He was the disappointment, not the decider.
The fractious father-son dynamic propels "W.," just as "Nixon" suggested the 37th president was driven by the work ethic and morality of his parents and by advancement that came after others died.
Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser focus on Bush from his college days to the 2004 press conference in which Time magazine's John Dickerson stumped the president with a question about the biggest mistake he had made. That is preceded by a scene in which Weiser doesn't just put words in Bush's mouth but doubt and tormented thoughts in his dreams.
"W." splits the story into thirds, with the first act devoted to life before 40, the second concentrating on Bush's well-documented decision to quit drinking, embrace his born-again faith and pursue politics, and the third examining part of the first term in office.
"W." invents conversations that took place behind bedroom doors and presumes moviegoers have some knowledge of the Bush presidency as it dramatizes moments large and small, from the debate about the Iraq war to the president choking on a pretzel.
With so much territory to cover and such a big cast of supporting players, from Rummy to Condi to Cheney, it sketches them with telltale traits or mannerisms. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, bullies Secretary of State Colin Powell, who most often is cast in a flattering light (literally and figuratively) while others recede into the shadows.
When "Nixon" was released, Richard M. Nixon had been out of office for two decades. "W." may be too late -- the country is more interested in the next occupant of the Oval Office -- or premature, with countless tell-alls and resolution of the economic crisis still to come. It's like calling the ballgame at the bottom of the eighth.
However, just as Anthony Hopkins did in "Nixon," star Josh Brolin grows more convincing as W. with each passing scene. By the time Bush's hair is gray and his forehead furrowed with lines, Brolin looks remarkably like the commander-in-chief, and you buy the illusion.
Elizabeth Banks is a passable match for Laura, although she has virtually nothing to do beyond support her husband. Ellen Burstyn's Barbara Bush is a sharp-tongued protectress with even less screen time. James Cromwell is the most complex and fascinating of all as the elder Bush, a one-term president who doesn't understand the effects his words, actions or surrogates have on his son.
In smaller roles, Thandie Newton does an improbable but dead-on impersonation of Condoleezza Rice, and Richard Dreyfuss morphs into Cheney.
When another project fell through, Stone opted to do "W" and release it before the election, arguing, "Attention spans in this era, particularly as to history, seem to have the shelf life of a fruit fly."
Maybe that's why "W." is only 131 minutes but feels like a fast, first draft of history, not a definitive drama.
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1632. First Published October 17, 2008 4:00 AM