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Stumbling to the finish Oliver Stone presents a critical replay of George W. Bush's life, but the plot is well known

Oliver Stone's much-awaited movie "W." is the wrong movie at the wrong time for the wrong reasons -- which makes it the most important movie failure we're going to see all year.

It's a film which audiences can't help but approach out of deep personal need. The lion's share who go will do so for almost the same reason there was an immense tune-in to the vice presidential debate among people who not-so-secretly hoped to see Gov. Sarah Palin morph humiliatingly into Tina Fey while the whole world was watching.

Those are the people who have merrily watched a sitting American president turn into a comic pinata all over late-night television (e.g. David Letterman's nightly mockery in his "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches").

Others may want to see something -- ANYTHING -- that humanizes a presidency that has been nothing but a cartoonist's caricature or a polemic argument for six years.

Those who want nasty jokes -- usually in President George W. Bush's own stumbling words -- will get some, if not nearly enough. There are periodic things to laugh at in this George W. Bush, but they are mixed with an oafish effort at compassion.

Those who want to understand or even empathize with a human being will get a few chances, but Stone's George W. Bush remains at the end as much a one-dimensional caricature as he is in the great editorial cartoons of someone like Tom Toles. "W." adds absolutely nothing to our current understanding of Bush or his benighted and wildly unpopular administration. It is in the strictest and most pitiless sense, a worthless film.

If it had been made two years ago, it might have had a strange point. It would have been better still two years frow now when history had begun to make its claims about the Bush administration. To bring it out now, just as Bush is about to step offstage and the country is about to elect his successor (and is therefore at its highest point of political feeling) is total, abysmal folly. It's an invitation to disappointment from all sides, left, right and middle.

Please understand. There was periodic laughter in the theater at the screening. And there was a smattering of applause at the end. But I think it all came from people who wanted some validation for their desire for a cinematic ceremony of scorn to accompany this guy as he exits stage right from the cartoon of his own making.

There's no understanding of Bush here that wasn't abundantly available in superior form from dozens of writers -- not Bush having Oedipal struggles with Daddy (who witheringly calls him "Junior" throughout the film, patronizes him and scolds him); not Bush the "Dry Drunk" maintaining the personality and the failings of his worst self even after he's "Born Again" and his alcohol intake is over; not even Bush the creature of appetite who is seen all through the film stuffing his face with ugly-looking sandwiches and non-gourmet snacks.

You can't blame the cast which, as always in Stone's movies, is phenomenal.

Josh Brolin, as Bush, was ready to give it everything. He doesn't have the perfection of Tina Fey's Palin but then he's actually trying to give you a man. While he misses the pathos of the long-term failure and loser Bush was for years (as well as both the spoiled charm and dislikability that often attends boys of privilege), he's got all the right moves for the part. Think of Brolin as a "Dancing With the Stars" contestant who worked very hard, did what he was told and ended up doing a plausible, if joyless, tango.

Even better is Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, a genuinely sexy and smart portrayal of a woman that many suspect of being 100 times more interesting than her husband. But for every Richard Dreyfuss who is surprisingly scary as Dick Cheney and Jeffrey Wright, who is portrayed sympathetically as Colin Powell, there is a huge mistake.

Biggest of all is James Cromwell as a frosty, forbidding George H. W. Bush, a portrayal I didn't believe for a second in any particular, despite Cromwell's total competence as an actor. Who could possibly doubt Daddy's disapproval of a son who screwed up so royally for so long? But, unlike the son who, in life, so easily assumed the outlines of caricature, George H.W. Bush was and is an extraordinarily full and complex figure, a three-dimensional Eastern patrician who isn't even approached by Cromwell's powerful but dismissive sketch.

Condoleezza Rice is so dismissed as an empty toady in this movie that it's the only time the movie actually comes close to malicious slander. (I suspect her relationship with Bush was a lot more interesting -- and layered -- than Cheney's.)

What you have to understand here is that this movie virtually announces the conclusion of any possibility that Oliver Stone remains a great American filmmaker. He was once. In fact, I've contended for years he was the most decisive influence in all of America on our understanding of the Vietnam War.

It was Vietnam veteran Stone who, in "Platoon," gave America the ideological way out of the Us Vs. Them nightmare of the Vietnam years -- a mainstream stance of anti-war but pro-veteran that remains the American mainstream sentiment about that war today. That simple ideological stance didn't exist in a wholesale way before Stone. I remember. I was writing about it.

Once upon a time, then, he was a very great filmmaker.

There's one scene here -- and one scene only -- where he still is. Shortly after the Iraq invasion and the "Mission Accomplished" banner is hoisted, we see George and Laura Bush at a VA hospital. It is there that this psychologically broken man sees the physically broken men caused, in part, by his own failures.

He tries to communicate with them in some jocular way. It doesn't work. It's yet another thing he's not especially good at in life and he clearly knows it. And yet his compassion and sorrow are so deep that he keeps on trying.

It's an amazing scene, almost worth the whole film. It's the one scene where you will remember that the director is Oliver Stone.

On AMC's "Shootout," Stone described this film as a "souffle."

That's probably how you hype something that's hopelessly insubstantial and lacking in any nutrition at all when the audience, on every possible political side, was ravenous for a great meal.

***

W.

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ellen Burstyn and Richard Dreyfuss in Oliver Stone's biography of President George W. Bush from beer-soaked Yale undergraduate to American commander in chief and leader of the free world. Rated PG-13 for language, opening Friday in area theaters.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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