Just Smile and Nod, Dubs

{grate 2}

First, a warning for those expecting a leftist Bush-bash: “W” is not a satire, a parody or anything even mildly exaggerated for comedic effect. Oliver Stone’s new biopic is actually a sort of political “Walk the Line,” packed with hilarious insight into the mind of a character so publically reviled that he cannot help but become larger than his humanity.

Josh Brolin plays Dubya in a way that perches us remarkably well between the politician’s public and private life; Bush’s simpleminded blunders and off-hand foolhardiness are readily apparent, but so is the man who grapples with public disapproval and overwhelming federal decisions beneath his cool exterior.

More than that, the president’s everyman charm is as well-pictured as it could be, reminding even the most skeptical audience why so many voters were first captivated by him before his inauguration.

In fact, Brolin is so true to life that most characters become mere archetypes in his shadow — Thandie Newton’s Condoleeza Rice, in particular, is all fawning support and gap-toothed smile, Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Cheney pure Machiavellian and Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell a simple caricature struggling with moral responsibility and loyalty to the Cabinet.

But the least convincing character by far is Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush — partly because she doesn’t look a thing like the first lady, and partly because her only real involvement in the Bush administration is to meekly and prettily encourage her husband during his rockier moments.

Stone’s mental vision of the notorious Prez relies heavily on an alleged father-son conflict. The film often implies that Bush’s deeper motivation in the Iraq War and even the presidential campaigns was an attempt to move out of (and beyond) his father’s shadow, as well as gain his well-guarded respect and admiration. These are all sentiments that we can empathize with ­— until we notice that applying such simplistic explanations for Bush’s actions completely neglect the need for any real presidential obligation, and doesn’t account for the inevitably great moments that will fall under any presidency. Still, Stone’s hand is so unyielding that “W” feels like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” gone cynically wrong; simple, intuitive men who feel strongly about stuff aren’t necessarily suited for the greater good of the nation.

In general, the film blends its parts in a manner that is decidedly trite: A common man is locked in battle between addiction and familial responsibility, who takes on self-imposed orders of ambition in order to both stoke his ego and to satiate a father whose respect he never seems to receive.

The one thread that keeps this particular plotline fresh is that the protagonist is, well, George W. Bush. Far more than an everyman, he holds the most powerful political position in the world, and he’s a pretty damn well-recognized celebrity.

“W” ends on a decidedly despairing note without actually taking a side. Indeed, it seems as though there is no solid ending because Bush’s story isn’t over yet.
While America concerns itself with the November elections, Stone documents the end of an era but shoots the conclusion with a darker tone; at this point, either Bush or the world must succeed because it’s been black and white, us vs. them, good vs. evil for eight long years.