As a character study, Oliver Stone's "W." delivers a view of George Bush more balanced and sympathetic than most anyone would give him as his term draws to a finish. As a historical account of his presidency, the film lacks any perspective that would determine what really defined the Bush administration. The result is a film that could have been more captivating if it was backed by legacy rather than immediacy, but it still has plenty to captivate with.
What's most captivating, of course, is Josh Brolin's commanding portrayal of George Bush.
"W." is littered with performances that bear a scary resemblance to their real-life counterparts -- chiefly spot-on depictions of President George H.W. Bush (James Cromwell), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones), but Brolin's is the finest of them all, representing the art of imitation becoming total embodiment. It's biopic acting at its best, with Brolin not only perfectly nailing Bush's appearance and all-too-familiar Texas drawl, but also the small gasping chuckles tacked onto insecure statements dying for their own comic relief and subtle mannerisms of uncertainty that speak volumes about how much of Bush's life seems governed by it.
Uncertainty is the key word for this biopic. Those hoping to see Bush put on trial for two hours are better off sticking to their Rolling Stone subscription. If anything, "W." tries to make us understand that our 43rd president is something of a timid simpleton who tried his best but just couldn't keep himself out of a mess. Messes followed him for his entire life, anyway: In his college years, we see our leader as a binge-drinking loser, undeniably charming and bright but seemingly not cut out for anything in particular. George H.W. Bush flexes his power again and again to keep earning his son more opportunities, but Dubya's everlasting stand in his father's shadow and inability to ever impress him is something that haunts him right into the Oval Office. Another warning to Bush haters: Like it or not, you're probably going to find yourself feeling sorry for the guy.
How exactly this alcoholic lost soul managed to reform his way to the White House, I'm still not totally certain. That's one of the many things viewers are left wishing Stone, known for the thoroughness he brings to his historical films, had decided to touch on. "W." was made under a tight deadline -- production started a mere five months before its release -- and Stone seems not only rushed in his filmmaking, but also perpetually uncertain of what his audience expects. The streamlining of events is uneven. Stone somehow thought Bush's pretzel-choking incident, which I doubt anyone would even remember had it not been mentioned again here, is more important to include than the 2000 voting scandal. He succeeds in immersing us in Bush's background, but much of the film is still a 21st century talkathon with limited insight to draw upon, leaving it inevitably incomplete.
But the story's timeliness sometimes plays to its advantage, as demonstrated in the film's non-ending. It brings no closure, of course, but it works perfectly because of that. The conclusion of "W." is appropriately indefinite and wary, one of several times the film rightly reflects the feelings of its viewers. Whether or not the film will have resonance with future viewers who didn't live through the Bush administration, only time will tell.
But "W." is very much a product of a particular time and national mind-set, and those of us that are part of it will obviously notice its gaping holes, but be more engrossed by its prevailing relevance.
Jason Silverstein is a senior at Williamsville North.
Review: Three stars (out of four)