Toss professionally incendiary Director Oliver Stone in the biopic ring with the worst president in U.S. history, and you rightly expect something more than a walk on the mild side. Josh Brolin is truly electrifying in the role of George W. Bush, from fuck-up son of privilege to fuck-up commander in chief, but Stone and Wall Street screenwriter Stanley Weiser can’t decide whether to stick it to our departing president or just hug it out. Whatever you think of Dubya, he has balls. The movie doesn’t.
It’s not that W. fails to score points. It’s watchable, often fun and, on rare occasion, suitably fierce. But from Stone you expect a fire in the belly or the gravitas he showed in Nixon. Here, only Brolin and James Cromwell as George Sr. are allowed to play it for real. The film opens with a meeting of the Bush Cabinet, all of whom look ready for SNL on an off night. Richard Dreyfuss folds his arms creepily just like Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton disappears under makeup to become Condi Rice, Toby Jones hints at the evil elf inside Karl Rove. But the script reduces the actors to stick figures, and Stone’s flair for comedy is largely in his own head.
Elizabeth Banks starts well as Laura, who’s all the way with LBJ until she meets Dubya at a Texas barbecue. Banks works up a scrappy chemistry with Brolin till the movie turns her into wallpaper. The high and low points in Bush’s life pop up onscreen like a PowerPoint presentation for short attention spans (insert your own Dubya joke here). In a movie that comes perilously close to being W. for Dummies, we see Bush the brawler, the baseball nut, the boozer, the born-again Christian, the husband, the politician, the pawn, the president. (Insert your own next job choice for Dubya here.) Stone suggests that if Bush had only become commissioner of baseball, we’d all be better off. Stone shot the movie fast to get it out before the election, perhaps to remind us what happens when we vote the wrong man in because he looks like a fighter or a good ol’ boy we’d like to have a beer with. Brolin plays him without condescension or judgment, the accent skirting caricature, the confusion palpable when he’s asked to answer a question on the fly, the pain of being Daddy’s second-favorite son clear even when he uses the Iraq invasion to avenge his father.
What about Mom? Ellen Burstyn’s Barbara Bush is kept on the sidelines. At its best, W. is a father-son story with love and hate jockeying for position. Brolin and Cromwell go at it with vigor, giving the film the psychological resonance it needs. Near the end, Stone takes a surreal leap by showing Dubya and Dad trading punches in the Oval Office. It’s a great, juicy scene, the kind you expect from Stone when he’s not self-censoring. More of that, and W. would be a movie that makes sense of Bush’s legacy instead of excuses.