W. is now playing throughout the Triangle
It's hard to tell what Oliver Stone is aiming at with W. As a political missive, it's an incredibly banal sermon to the choir. As a raucous raspberry, it's just not stylistically batty enough to register. As a comedy, it's never much nuttier than a Saturday Night Live skit. And as a historical film, it's too speculative by half. What results is a restless, uncooperative film that exhibits a fascinating tension between earnest message movie and bombastic cartoon, occupying the eerie area between Bush's manipulation of information and his inability to grasp it.
Josh Brolin's daffy, purposefully one-note performance as George W. Bush gets unnerving, and not only because the crude caricature often captures the man. While Thandie Newton plays Condoleezza Rice literally stooped over with sycophancy, and Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney) can hardly keep from winking at the camera, Brolin's Bush is not aware that he's in a movie, and he's barely aware that he's president.
Stone's Bush can be obstinate and vulnerable in the same moment—when he asks Cheney "What do you want me to do?" he is being both belligerent and literal. Telling Cheney "We don't use torture," it's unclear whether he means it with a wink ("We don't use that word") or if he genuinely thinks their post-Geneva tactics really are in bounds. While I couldn't help but want W. to go off the rails more than it does, it gets plenty of mileage out of the strange character that emerges despite the surface simplicity. During a prayer scene, Stone cuts to close-ups of Jesus, implying that Bush isn't so much praying to Christ as identifying with him. It's not only effective but subtle, not something usually associated with Stone's style.
A lot of W. is a tough slog. The good-ol'-boy stuff of Bush's youth is generic, and the ready-made father-son tension is predictable. In Stone's world, Cheney and Rumsfeld are vocal about the door that 9/11 has opened for world domination, and talk frankly about creating an empire of oil. You get the feeling that it should incense or titillate us to see our suspicions about their backroom conversations confirmed. But this administration has been so open about its disregard for international law and transparency with the public that conspiracy theories are less tantalizing than they are obvious.
Other political aspects of W. aren't so simple. In the leftist world of Oliver Stone, Colin Powell is hardly a good guy, but in the insular world of W.—the movie exists almost entirely in Bush's house, his stadium, his country club—Powell becomes a voice of reason. Is Stone implicitly participating in the national shift to the right that Karl Rove engineered under Bush, or is this his sly way of pointing it out? It's hard to be sure, but that might be one of the key ideas in W. While it's a messy movie without much momentum, it embraces a willful confusion—one that history might prove to be a perfectly appropriate response to the last eight years.