Oliver Stone's "W." fails as satire

Posted: October 17, 2008

Apart from the respective families and friends of cast members, it's difficult to imagine anyone who'll want to run out to catch W. Is there a man or woman left in America that needs to revisit the mistakes and miscalculations behind Operation Iraqi Freedom, the "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier speech, the myth of Saddam's WMDs?

Certainly, the 22 percent of Americans who still approve of the job George W. Bush is doing won't cotton to Oliver Stone's stultifyingly unfunny portrait of the 43d U.S. commander-in-chief.

And for the other 78? Beverly Hills Chihuahua holds more appeal.

As portrayed by No Country for Old Men's Josh Brolin, the lame-duck president is a carousing muddler who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and a big chip on his shoulder: the constant disapproval of his dad, George H.W. (the tall, scowling James Cromwell).

Flashing back to Bush Jr.'s frat-boy days at Yale, his short-lived stint as an oil rigger, his unsuccessful run for a Texas congressional seat, his fateful meeting with a pretty librarian named Laura (Elizabeth Banks), his boozing and skirt-chasing and ownership of baseball's Texas Rangers, W. offers a failed mix of political satire, psycho-biography, SNL-style mimicry, and Shakespearean tragedy.

Yes, the gang's all here: Vice President Dick Cheney (an eerie approximation from Richard Dreyfuss); Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton - she doesn't say much, but her curious head-nods trigger a few of W.'s far-between laughs); political operative Karl Rove (Toby Jones); Donald "Rummy" Rumsfield (Scott Glenn); Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). There are Oval Office confabs, Cabinet meetings, and group meanders across the ranch, with Bush looking alternately antsy, bored, bewildered. And while W. mostly centers on the "Decider's" decision to invade Iraq and its aftermath - no Katrina here, no financial crisis, thanks - the film nonethless drags on forever.

W.'s problems are manifold. Stone comes at the project with his own dogged political views, and that's his right (and his left). But unlike the filmmaker's previous stabs at presidential biopic-ing and conspiracy theorizing - JFK and Nixon - this one doesn't have the luxury of historical perspective. President Bush is still in office, after all, and the dust - and Iraqi sand - won't settle for years to come.

Brolin's performance is brave, but flawed, and the actor just looks too old to be convincing as a Skull & Bones inductee. His Bush comes off less a buffoon than a moody, calculating but hardly brilliant fellow. Stone, a director not known for his light touch, feels as if he's pulling his punches here: trying to paint a sympathetic portrait, not going for cheap mockery. But that leaves the audience with dry reenactments of White House strategy sessions, with press conferences and State of the Union speeches, with a "hero" who's an empty vessel. Sure, there's a glimpse of "Geo" and Laura climbing into bed, a sports show on TV, and the bedside clock flickering 9:01 p.m., but that's about as deep as the insights get into the private life of the president and first lady.

Stone spends serious time examining Bush's years of reported reckless drinking, making phone calls to "Poppy" to extricate himself from jail, clutching bottles of beer and booze like a baby latched to its blanket. Stacy Keach plays the Baptist preacher leading the AA sessions that get Bush on the wagon, and on the path toward his born-again Christian tenets.

"I believe that God wants me to run for president," Dubya announces to his poker buddies one night. And as everybody in the world knows, he did run. The consequences of this presidency will be with us for decades. Oliver Stone's W. will be out of here in a flash.

W. ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Oliver Stone. With Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Richard Dreyfuss and Jeffrey Wright. Distributed by Lionsgate Releasing.

Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.

Rating: PG-13 (profanity, alcohol, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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