Friday, October 17, 2008

Brush Clearing

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stanley Weiser
Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Scott Glenn, Toby Jones, Stacey Keach, Bruce McGill, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright
Opens October 17, 2008

Brolin as Bush in W.
Josh Brolin strides through W. with the swagger of an actor born to his role—making him the perfect choice to play the 43rd president, who undoubtedly feels the same way about his job. As the anti-hero of Oliver Stone’s messy take on the life and times of the current leader of the free world, Brolin does far more than merely mimic Bush’s mannerisms and malapropisms, which is as far as most impressionists would go; instead, he invests himself in the actual character of the drunken frat boy who somehow made good, giving Bush gravitas we never see in the real man.

Stone is lucky to have Brolin in the lead, for the actor paves over W.’s considerable flaws, willing it to become a memorable throwaway movie. This Bush biopic—written by Stanley Weiser, who also scripted Stone’s Wall Street—is an assemblage of Big Moments from the younger Bush’s life, from his Yale fraternity hazing in 1966 to his “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier landing during the Iraq War in 2003. Moving through various events (meeting wife Laura, losing his first election, helping run his dad’s presidential campaign, owning the Texas Rangers), W. keeps returning to the run-up to the disastrous Iraq war.

Weiser’s script checks off people and events with annoying regularity—as if his and Stone’s main source was YouTube—based on the simpleminded notion that Bush’s political success was a deliberate get-back at his father, the former congressman, CIA director, vice-president and president. In one of many scenes striking for their redundancy, Daddy looks Junior in the eye and says, “You disappoint me.” Even when Junior becomes governor of Texas, father and mother are incredulous—they can’t believe he got elected before their beloved favorite son, Jeb.

Much of this may be true, but Stone slams home his superficial psychoanalysis too relentlessly; it’s inevitable that after we keep cutting to shots of his father commenting disparagingly on something his son did, he finally admits to a grudging admiration when it looks like his ill-advised decision to invade Iraq is a rousing—and easy—success.

Stone made W. quickly to ensure its release before Election Day, and it shows with its dismaying lack of nuance and invention. Too often, we get lazily ironic music cues, like country tunes blaring when we’re in Texas or patriotic songs when blunders are being discussed in the Oval office. There are two exceptions. The movie begins with Bush in a baseball uniform (number 43, of course), playing the outfield to imaginary cheers in an otherwise empty stadium. This intriguing metaphor for his life recurs, however, to diminishing returns. Secondly, there’s a political statement tucked into footage of Bush giving his “going to war” speech: Stone intercuts shots of real senators with Brolin’s re-enactment of the speech, and the first one we see is John McCain. (Obama wasn’t elected to the Senate until nearly two years later.)

Stone’s best moments present Bush without any filtering by peeking behind the fa├žade of Bushisms and dopily uncoordinated movements—but much of that is due to Brolin’s expert, sympathetic portrayal, along with the credible sweetness Elizabeth Banks brings to wife Laura. Their scenes together are surprisingly touching in their intimacy.

Richard Dreyfuss sneers convincingly as Dick Cheney, but the rest of the cabinet disappoints. Thandie Newton is a dead ringer for Condi Rice, but she seems to have been heavily made up, since each time she speaks, she sounds robotic and fake. Toby Jones is miscast as Karl Rove and Jeffery Wright looks uneasy impersonating Colin Powell, while Scott Glenn (Rumsfeld) and Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush) don’t even try. As for Daddy Bush, James Cromwell gets the basics right, but never burrows further. (Where’s Dana Carvey when you need him?)

Luckily, with Brolin onscreen in nearly every scene, W. works as a disquieting glimpse of a man who didn’t deserve what he wanted but got it anyway. Brolin even makes the manglings of language that are Bush’s stock in trade sound perfectly natural as they tumble out of his mouth: from “Containment don’t hold water” to the infamous “Is our children learning?”, Brolin nails the flimsy essence of George W. Bush.

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