It should have been called – and spelt – ‘Dubya.’ At least that title may have loosened the collar of Oliver Stone’s stiff and graceless biopic of George W. Bush, simply titled W., but then again this film should have been a lot of things – ‘entertaining’ and ‘interesting’ are words that quickly come to mind. Stone has been many things over the years, but boring is traditionally not one of them – once upon a time he was the meddlesome movie maverick with a proud reputation for making loud statements and ballsy pictures.
Sadly, Stone’s sizzle has cooled and the fiery provocateur who helmed Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers and the under-appreciated Talk Radio has all but left the building. Nothing the director has made since the turn of the century represents the savvy hot-blooded rabble-rouser we used to know and love, or know and hate, or know and simply keep watching. The spark may have flickered in Alexander (2004) but amid the wild, walloping flames of unbridled lunacy that engulfed that pic, no-one can be sure.
A sense of lost opportunity overshadows just about all of W., the first of its problems stemming from structural choices in the screenplay. What to show, and what not? The plot moves from Dubya’s college years (nobody cares) to his decision to run for Governor of Texas (care factor improving) and then later President (boom!) and the story culminates with his inevitable retirement after serving a full two terms. There are gaps the size of craters in Stone’s series of events: bafflingly, writer Stanley Weiser totally shuns September 11 (remember how George was reading My Pet Goat when the planes struck? Gold) and doesn’t mention other assumed must-haves such as the controversial ‘stolen’ election of 2000. Ignoring some of the most significant and widely reported events in Dubya’s Presidency, W. carries with it the strong, unavoidable sensation that the story is skipping forwards, backwards and sideways at its own leisure, with no apparent rhyme or reason. Since Dubya’s administration is fresh in the collective memory, audiences aren’t so generous in allowing the filmmakers free reign on deciding what makes for interesting viewing – especially when the breezed over bits like war, stolen elections and ravaging hurricanes are, well, kind of interesting things to put in a movie. Especially a bland one.
In a better film, Josh Brolin’s fine performance as the man himself would probably have been recognised with an Oscar nomination, but he was always at Stone’s mercy. Thandie Newton’s much-mocked performance as Condo Rice is a sick, sick joke – her accent way off, her swagger stiff and robotic, and every time she opens her mouth Newton demonstrates a remarkable ability to turn simple lines of dialogue into unbelievable hornswoggle. How she made it past the screen tests I don’t know. Jeffrey Wright also misfires as Colin Powell – the only vaguely moral Republican on show who comes good, goes bad, then fizzles away at the sidelines. James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn are wasted as mum and pop Bush.
Where’s the fire, the drama, the intrigue? Perhaps the passage of age has smoothened Oliver Stone’s crinkle and rounded out the rough edges of his political antipathy. Perhaps Stone no longer waxes anti-establishment at Hollywood parties; perhaps no longer attends them and spends his evenings reading the newspaper and writing his memoirs. And that’s what W. feels like – a memoir – albeit one that doesn’t know whether to chronicle or opine, or whether to celebrate or castigate, and one that deliberately leaves out massive chunks of pertinent information. Like Richard Nixon writing his memoir and refusing to discuss Watergate.
W. vyes for impartiality and strips itself of character in the process, afraid to make any remotely bold statements. George Dubya wasn’t that bad, Stone seems to be saying, entirely unconvincingly, and that’s a message amusingly converse to what most audiences were hoping to see in this movie – which was probably a gaffe-by-gaffe account of Dubya’s self-inflicted pies in the face, set in front of the smouldering embers of economic and social ruin in America.
You won’t find that here – nothing heavy or scathing. Nothing Oliver Stone-like. As partial recompense the audience are treated to Richard Dreyfuss hamming it up as Dick Cheney, just one Dick impersonating another, and Dreyfuss greedily eats it up – snarling, chuckling, scheming, plotting for world domination. He scored the best role and he knows it. The Bush/Cheney dynamic is as close to Pinky and Brain as the real world gets.
Cheney is sensationally characterised here, no doubt ‘bout it, but unlike others in the film he’s in accordance with the popular version of events and, more importantly, is relatively interesting to watch. I sense a better movie here: one called ‘Cheney,’ filled with world maps, nefarious ploys and maniacal laughter. In a small supporting role, it could feature a daffy gaffe-making man known only by a lazily pronounced single letter moniker. This is the movie Oliver Stone should have made. This is the movie everybody wanted to see. This is an idea so devilishly good I am laughing maniacally right now.
W’s Australian theatrical release: February 26, 2009