starring Josh Brolin
written by Stanley Weiser & directed by Oliver Stone
Rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.

George Walker Bush, son of a prominent and wealthy Texas politician, coasts recklessly through the early stages of his adulthood, relying on his disappointed father to find him new employment when he tires of his latest occupation and, when necessary, bail him out of trouble with the law. Eventually he marries a librarian and runs an abortive campaign for congress in West Texas (“I’ll never be out-Texaned and out-Christianed again!”). Bush’s life takes a drastic turn, however, when he gives up alcohol and dedicates himself to following Jesus Christ. His new path ultimately leads him to become governor of Texas, and then President of the United States, where he hopes he will finally have the chance to earn the approval he craves from his father and avoid the mistakes that denied the older Bush a second term in the White House.

Oliver Stone, perhaps the most politically-controversial American filmmaker after Michael Moore (and just as prone to clumsy audience manipulation), turns his attention to yet another American president. I can’t say whether this ought to count as the last entry in even a loose trilogy, as I have not yet seen 1991’s acclaimed JFK or 1995’s flop Nixon. In fact, with that in mind, perhaps I’m not even qualified to comment. Nevertheless, I will state unequivocally that W. ranks among the emptiest cinematic exercises I have ever witnessed. It is a 2-hour Saturday Night Live skit without the funny (so, basically like the SNL skit-inspired movies, I guess).

The first half in particular is a chaotic morass of poor editing. The movie simply has no story to tell and no coherent point to make. It presents a greatest-hits, mixed-nuts approach to the life of its subject, trotting out scenes at random that we (who have lived through his administration) will recognize and understand, but which will soon become incomprehensible. Consider, for instance, a scene in which the president nearly chokes to death on a pretzel, sandwiched arbitrarily between scenes from the ’60s and ’70s. It conveys nothing of plot, character, or thematic relevance. It simply is. When a well-crafted, interesting scene finally pops up, about 45 minutes in, it is unprecedented enough to be worth noting . . . but it is soon gone again.

If W. has a mission (which, really, it doesn’t) it is to demythologize a president that has never really aspired to or achieved mythic proportions. Nevertheless, the movie toils gamely to bring Dubya down to earth among regular folk, treating us to scenes in which he struts around in his tighty-whities or wipes his presidential posterior at the end of a session on the toilet. The effort is transparent, belabored, and tiresome. And speaking of transparent and belabored, the movie’s midpoint conversion scenes and virtually everything else dealing with faith, feels lifted (whether sincerely or with sly irony it is impossible to tell) directly from a c-grade Christian evangelical movie.

The cast provides a point of some interest here, and it is an excellent one. In the hours after I watched the movie I found it difficult to conjure up the real-life faces of the principal players in the Bush administration. They had been temporarily displaced by their big-screen counterparts. Wherever the actors attempt slavish impersonation, the effort tends to go awry (Thandie Newton’s Condi Rice is the most egregious example). In the land of the tiresome political biopic, the caricature is king: Toby Jones’s weaselly Karl Rove and especially Richard Dreyfuss’s hilariously over-the-top take on Dick Cheney. In a class all by itself is the casting of Rob Corddry (formerly of The Daily Show) as press secretary Ari Fleischer, which I can only hope was an in-joke.

More on the level of sick joke is the tortuous musical accompaniment, which ranges from seedy renditions of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Mommas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and back again. All of these, of course, intrude at a point calculated for maximum hokeyness, as though determined to drain every drop of serious impact from the scene.

Not that one would be inclined to take this spectacle seriously, of course. The take-home message seems to be that George W. Bush became the president of the United States because he had massive daddy issues, a cartoonish supposition. Stone gives the appearance of working hard to win our sympathy for the man (if not for the leader), but he fails most of all in winning our sympathy for the movie. Only time will tell if W. stands a chance of becoming (at best) a cult classic, a campy cultural oddity revisited by the bored and the curious, or whether it will simply fade into a more-deserved obscurity. In either case, contemporary audiences will find little to recommend the experience of witnessing the phenomenon on the big screen during election season 2008.

~ by Jared on October 17, 2008.

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