"W." is proof that great acting doesn't necessarily add up to a great film.
Directed by Oliver Stone, who seems to have a fondness for presidential cinema, "W." is the type of film we almost certainly didn't expect from the often controversial, always opinionated director...sympathetic.
"W.," it was somewhat feared, would be a rather scathing and/or simply hypercritical portrait of the current American president. After all, Stone is the guy who brought us both "JFK" and "Nixon."
The guy tends to be rather direct.
Stone doesn't opt for character assassination, however, "W." also isn't a straightforward bio of President Bush. While it would be a stretch to call Stone's portrait a loving portrait, there's a sort of kid glove approach that seems to indicate a trust in the material.
Written by Stanley Weiser ("Wall Street"), "W." spends more time dealing with Bush's long unresolved daddy issues than it does drawing a coherent picture of the man. This approach works at times, while at other times it becomes the film's greatest hindrance.
Our current president is portrayed largely as a drunken, womanizing man until he found Jesus at the age of 40. All of his behaviors, it seems, are attributed to his always complicated relationship with his father, former president George H.W. Bush.
Bush's foray into politics is portrayed as almost an accident, an act done primarily to win the elder Bush's favor. By the time Bush wins the White House, it becomes readily apparent that winning the White House put Bush in the position of being woefully ill-equipped for the mission in front of him. Yet, Stone doesn't condemn him for completing this mission...after all, it seems, who wouldn't really WANT to be president?
Stone takes a kinder, gentler approach to it all and it doesn't even feel tongue-in-cheek.
Brolin, who leaped to Hollywood's upper echelon with last year's "No Country for Old Men," turns in the performance of his career in "W.," a performance that never becomes a caricature despite the fact that even looking at Bush often feels like one is looking at a caricature. Elizabeth Banks, as well, turns in a strong performance as Laura Bush, a woman who seems woefully out of Bush's league.
"W." is a potpourri of Hollywood actors playing Bush's (Josh Brolin) supporting and, at times, controlling players including Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss),
Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) and a host of others. Dreyfuss, in particular, stands out from the crowd in a performance that almost seems to be channeling the vice-president that many believe is really often in control.
James Cromwell is rather intimidating as the elder Bush, perhaps the film's most clear-cut "baddie" portrayal, though Cromwell measures it out nicely. Burstyn, as Barbara Bush, companions the portrayal nicely.
It's unfortunate that in a film filled with so many strong performances that, overall, "W." never really comes together as a film. "W." feels about 20-25 minutes too long, yet somehow still feels over-edited. While the episodic approach by Stone works fairly well early on, by the end of the film it feels like "W." is simply disorganized and out of focus.
Solid performances across the board and a career best performance from Josh Brolin work together to elevate "W." above mediocrity, however, it's hard not to be a tad disappointed with a film that had so much potential to say so much more.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic