Friday, November 5, 2010

"W." (2008)

Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks and Richard Dreyfuss
Written by Stanley Weiser
Directed by Oliver Stone

It's tough to review a film about a guy you don't like.  It's even tougher when it turns out that it's not even that good of a movie.  "W." is the story of George W. Bush, the former President of the United States.  Y'know, the one who led us into a vicious cycle of wars and disastrous economic and foreign policies.  One of the least popular presidents in the history of the United States.

So, you'd think a film like this would be an easy sell, right?  Well it turns out that a good film is a good film and a bad film is a bad film.  "W." is just okay, neither good nor bad, the fault mostly of a script that doesn't really seem to know what it wants to do or how it wants to play things.

"W." presents Bush's adult life in a non-linear fashion, alternating back and forth between a stretch of time in 2002 and 2003 where President Bush (Josh Brolin) and his advisers are in the beginning stages of planning the war in Iraq and flashbacks which show Bush's time in college, his early professional years and finally his ascendancy to political office.  The young Bush is a rich loser - he's lazy to a fault, quitting job after job and never getting anywhere but in trouble.  His father, George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell) is frustrated and disappointed, and has no problem expressing that to his son.  The young Bush complains that he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, and can't quite seem to figure it out.

He starts out as a drunk, a womanizer, and a total douche.  He's a man who seeks power and respect because he feels it's what he deserves rather than because it's something he wants to needs to do.  At every turn in his life, he's confronted with people that he sees are simply out to get him or hold him back rather than prop him up - including his own father.  Eventually, through sheer force of will, he manages to get himself elected Governor of Texas, and then (through slightly more nefarious means) President of the United States. 

The script for "W." has strengths and it has weaknesses, some of which nearly cripple the film.  There's a scene partway through the film where Bush, along with Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), George Tenet (Bruce McGill) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones) discuss whether or not Iraq even has weapons of mass destruction and the justifications for the invasion of the country.  This scene is indicative of the entire film as a whole, and here's why:  The performances are (mostly) great.  Every actor feels right, with the exception of Thandie Newton's Condoleeza Rice, which comes off more like a "Saturday Night Live" character rather than a character in a biographical film.  Dreyfuss is great as Cheney, coming across as a man who might be second in command on paper but uses his considerable influence at every turn.  Jeffrey Wright is the sole voice of reason in the room as Colin Powell, urging the others to be more careful with their intel, and not to engage in a war unless they're absolutely sure.  The direction is good, here, as well.  It's a lengthy scene which involves a bunch of people sitting around a table and talking, but it's quite good and entertaining until it collapses under its own weight.

But here's where it all goes wrong: the dialogue suddenly becomes extremely heavy-handed partway through.  The first half of the scene is great, possibly even the best scene in the entire movie.  But then Colin Powell begins to deliver this awful speech to the others, and suddenly what felt very natural just a few moments earlier suddenly seems entirely artificial.  This is a problem the entire movie suffers from.  Great performances and solid direction, but it goes off the rails a few times when the dialogue just suddenly falls apart and characters are delivering speeches about their feelings. 

This sort of approach might have worked in some kind of mockumentary setting, or perhaps even some kind of surreal soliloquy, but keeping it in the "real world" constructed by the film actually destroys that world.  Each time it happens, I was taken right out of the film and "W." needed to convince me to come back. 

"W." is probably worth watching if you're at all interested.  The performances are great, for the most part.  Josh Brolin pretty well disappears into the role (even if he still looks like he's 45 when he's supposed to be playing Bush at 20).  Brolin brings a lot of energy and charisma to 'Dubya', a man who is constantly moving, or eating, and a slick talker.  He's really the star of the entire show here, and Stone couldn't have cast better (even though, originally, Christian Bale was set to play Bush).  Elizabeth Banks makes a lovely Laura Bush.  James Cromwell has several excellent scenes as the elder George, and Ellen Burstyn just as good as Barbara.  It's these performances that carry "W.", making it a noteworthy, if mediocre, film.

"W." probably could be or should have been a more important film.  But it just doesn't cut deep enough.  Whether that's the result of cowardice or not having the benefit of two years more hindsight, I'm not sure.  I think if this film had been made this year instead of two years ago, maybe it would have dug deeper.  As it is, it's just a bit too long, and with too many script problems to be anything but simply a collection of good performances.