Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Frank Review of "W." (2008)

The Short Version? Dubbya's first term, with life-to-date Cliff's Notes.
What Is It? Humorous Docudrama
Who's In It? Josh Brolin & cameos/bit parts galore.
Should I See It? Probably not.

Too soon.

I recently saw a set of trailers before a film and realized the only movies advertised I had an interest in were political. "W." was one of them. My friend, a republican, was also intrigued, but afraid the movie would be a hit job. I felt there was enough inherently wrong about the life of George Walker Bush to say the facts plain and still have a fascinating movie about a flawed individual.

We were both wrong.

The presentation of Dubbya in this film is fairly sympathetic, while his administration never comes off worse than misguided in intent and ineffectual in execution. However, even while making the case for Bush as a fortunate son trying to make good, there's no meat on the all too familiar bones of Bush lore. Aside from some limp armchair psychology and a few unfortunate episodes or surreality, the script offers nothing the average American hadn't already figured out through the nightly news. Worse, the screenplay places commonly known quotes back into the mouths of its subjects in different contexts from which they originated. Not only is the dialogue itself a retread of the well worn, but it's meta-textual enough to kick you out of the movie besides. How anyone could have read this thing and thought there was a movie here, well, I cannot imagine a greater misunderestimation.

"W." has a lame duck script and director Oliver Stone offers little more than a standard docudrama, so what's here worth bothering with?

Josh Brolin. I started paying attention to him as more than Streisand's stepson with 2006's "The Dead Girl," a grungy role the actor seemed to really sink his teeth into. Brolin's had a hot streak ever since, gaining increasing esteem in far more eyes than mine. His turn as George W. Bush isn't just a bravura performance-- it's a metaphysical invocation. Brolin shares virtually no characteristics with the person he plays, yet he manages through mild make-up and inhuman ability to somehow become more real than Dubbya himself seems as himself. Brolin is so good he almost validates Bush's presidency, if only because of its inspiration. I kind of doubt anyone who's been through Gitmo would agree, but allow me a bit of hyperbole here, eh?

James Cromwell as father George Herbert Walker Bush and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush are also fantastic. I think the senior Bush was a better president than he's remembered as, standing in the shadow of Reagan's charisma and forced to confront the adverse effects of the Gipper's voodoo economics. G. H. W.'s story is far less well known, and I expect would have made for a much better movie. Certainly, the dynamic between the Bushs outshines any other element of the screenplay, truly the highlight of the production, after Brolin. I could have also stood to see more of Toby Jones as Karl Rove, as he played similarly well off Brolin, and added dimension to another public figure worth disparaging.

Elizabeth Banks is an attractive actress appearing in four currently running trailers, but she doesn't recall Laura Bush at all. Richard Dreyfuss is no fun as Dick Cheney, keeping his evil at Penguin levels where I'd have liked the face full of buckshot. Scott Glenn barely registers as Rummy. Thandie Newton's make-up is great, but her pinched voice is so far over the top as to seem like she stepped out of a Saturday Night Live skit. Jeffrey Wright's attempt at portraying Colin Powell starts off weak, and gets worse when he's forced into the role of the liberal-talking-point conscience of the group. Noah Wyle and Ioan Gruffudd are so out of place, they serve only as additional agents of cognitive dissonance.

I think there's still an epic to be made about the Bush family in general and Dubbya's administration in particular, but it will require more obscure elements, an historical perspective, and a director not trying so hard to mask his agenda that he strips his whole production of life. "W." is not a great film, but there isn't yet a more Oscar-worthy performance this year than Josh Brolin's.

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