As leaving gifts for Republican presidents go, a biopic from Oliver Stone is probably about as welcome as a set of novelty Hugo Chávez tea towels or a Hillary Clinton dancercise video. But W, Stone's super-punctual assessment of George W Bush's presidency, is hardly the bomb-disguised-as-a-carriage-clock that might have been anticipated.
Josh Brolin, who plays Bush, is a decent performer with a variety of shifty facial expressions to compensate for his lack of physical suitability for the role; he nails that eerie tic that Bush has where he nods to himself as though responding to voices only he can hear. But Brolin never breaks through his own innate, actorly confidence to reach Bush's paralysed panic. Even when wilting visibly in the face of questions at a White House press conference, the actor has a swagger that insists he's in control. Bush in the same situation tends to assume the look of Wile E Coyote just before the anvil falls on his head.
W is structured like a TV movie, flitting back and forth very cleanly between Bush's early years as an alcoholic reprobate, and the weeks leading up to the decision to attack Iraq. And it feels like a TV movie, too: the photography looks as deliberately bland as the psychological insights feel (unintentionally) phony. Most biopics of creative types show the novelist's screwed-up first drafts, the artist's slashed canvases, and the screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, conjures his own equivalent: a White House pow-wow at which the President's latest speech is mulled over. They've got "axis of something" - but how best to complete the phrase that will indict America's foes?
Like the corniest TV biopics, the restaging of iconic moments has a casualness incommensurate to any real-life gravitas. All your favourites are present - let's hear it for Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) and, loitering in the doorway, Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss). The gathering resembles a hot new attraction at Madame Tussauds; they might call it "The Eve of Destruction", and give out a free WMD key ring with every admission (subject to availability).
The bland style keeps you purring for as long as you think it's building to a pay-off. Bush gets thrown in jail for being a lout, and bailed out by his father, "Poppy" (James Cromwell), who reminds "Junior" what a disappointment he is. He meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), who describes him as "a devil in a white hat". He battles alcoholism and announces that God is backing him to run for president. But Stone isn't using the superficial tone for satirical ends: it represents as sincere an understanding as he and Weiser have of their subject. Knowing interjections come in song form - "What a Wonderful World" here, the Robin Hood theme there ("Feared by the bad/Loved by the good"). But a sardonic soundtrack is no substitute for artistic vision, or a discernible point of view.
Occasionally, the film's flatness amplifies a latent savagery. The President takes his cabinet walkabout in the pastoral grounds of his ranch as they discuss the upcoming war ("Shock and awe? I like that, Rummy!"). After a while they discover they've strayed from the path: they're lost, literally and metaphorically. (And for the first and last time, George W Bush can truly be said to be outstanding in his field.) Once the US casualties start rolling in, Bush visits the wounded in hospital. He assures a legless soldier he'll be on his feet in no time, and waggles a man's charred thumb when a handshake proves impractical. For a moment, Stone finds a register he can work in during this ghoulish exchange.
W could use more of that flair, not to mention some psychological thoroughness; only the most undemanding viewer will swallow the idea that the whole miserable slaughterhouse of Iraq can be blamed on Junior's attempts to win his father's love. Of course, it's possible that, in making this film, Stone was on a hiding to nothing all along. One of Bush's most daunting achievements has been to present to the world a version of himself more pitiful than anything the satirists could concoct. He's beaten the naysayers to his own character assassination. Maybe that's why, in W, the horror of the Bush years feels so seriously misunderestimated.
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