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October 21, 2008

Stone’s ‘W’ isn’t as disastrous as its subject matter

(Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn and Thandie Newton. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated PG-13; 1:50. LEO Report Card: B-)

There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s “W” that captures the director’s take on the leadership abilities of our 43rd president. With an army of button-down advisers accompanying him on a hike through his Crawford ranch, the distracted president misses a turn and gets lost. He was too overwhelmed by the chorus of opinions to keep his focus on the task at hand, and his leadership failed. The symbolism is hard to miss. 

The George W. Bush of Stone’s film is well-meaning but insecure. And he’s a horrible multi-tasker. In his heart, he knows he’s under-qualified for his position, which is why he relies so heavily on advisers. When they give conflicting advice, he turns to a loyal sidekick, usually Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. 

If you’ve read any of the exposés on the Bush White House, this interpretation is old news. Bush has alienated so many civil servants that the administration has more leaks than a colander. Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh and others have used those sources to write extensively about this administration’s suspect decision-making process. 

Stone spends half of the movie summarizing these books. The rest is a baffling journey inside the director’s vision of W’s psyche. The movie shows the president as an apprehensive man-child struggling for the approval of his father (in this way, “W” closely resembles “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” but without the laughs). He finds father figures everywhere — his fraternity brothers, Rove, Jesus. And his deep desire to please people makes him both an ideal politician and a horrendous leader.  

Stone has his actors play everything as straight as possible. Josh Brolin is a perfect fit for the president — partly because he’s good at Texas swagger, partly because they both have the same crowded, chimp-like face. Occasionally Brolin is over-the-top, but it seems appropriate with W, because, well, the president is occasionally over-the-top. How else would an old-money, East Coast Yale grad come off when he’s trying to be a Texas everyman?  

The other cast members turn in similar performances; they are unsubtle but serious. The exception is Thandie Newton, whose Condoleezza Rice is overly dour, very whiney and yet sexy (hey, it’s Thandie Newton — she could make anybody sexy). It’s the closest the movie comes to “Saturday Night Live”-esque parody. 

By the end of the film, W is a raddled, impotent man. It’s obvious to everybody that he will not achieve greatness. His desperate need for approval has turned the public against him. 

“W” concludes with a series of abstract psychological scenes, most of which are just ham-fisted Freudian dream sequences. These are somehow entertaining, but not terribly believable. It’ll take decades before his closest confidants start spilling the beans.

Ultimately, W the man is unknowable. What we do know (and all we need to) is that as a president, he is an unmitigated disaster.

“W” the movie? Not a disaster. Just weird.