W. (2008)

"We were not out to demean or hurt the man. That is not the right motivation for me to direct. Too much time is involved. Who needs a negative mindset? We let the man speak it in his own words. We set out to show his reasoning for the Iraq War as a function of who he is, his personal history. The hope is when you can walk out of the movie, you say, 'I understand that guy. I may not agree or like the result, but I understand.' And that's drama. I can't say I liked Oedipus when I walked out of 'Oedipus,' I can't say I liked Agamemnon, I can't say I like many of the Greek heroes. Some of them are outright assholes. But you watch them, you follow their story. That's drama. It may be easier or more palatable to have a character with whom you sympathize-- studio executives love that word. But it's tricky: if we sympathize with everyone, we create a manufactured values system. It's much more interesting and real if you try to empathize and understand, if not always approve."
-- Director Oliver Stone on W. in the Lionsgate Press Release


There's a recurring metaphor running throughout director Oliver Stone's controversial biopic W. Opening the film and ultimately closing it, the avid-baseball fan and team owner George W. Bush (as portrayed by Josh Brolin) is way out in the outfield with his eyes on a pop-up ball heading straight towards him in center field, just out of reach. Stone has never been one to relish the joys of traditional narrative structure and instead symbolism, ingeniously ironic musical cues, and clever editing have always made their impact for better or for worse during his legendary career but this time, his eye is on the ball (if you'll excuse the cliche) in depicting what has spiraled into the decision and event that will become synonymous with W's name. Of course, specifically that is the Iraq war which has developed into such an incredibly complicated mess that no one, not even the man who made the decision to go in following 9/11 knows quite how to catch and stop it. There's no calling a time-out-- although this upcoming election will find us trading players with the possibility of a whole new starting lineup if (as I'm truly hoping) Obama is elected, what has happened has happened and Stone knows better than to try and tack on some sort of conclusion that would ultimately mean as little as W's "Mission Accomplished" speech.

W. is the type of film that Stone argued it would be from the beginning-- a fair and balanced, overwhelmingly even-handed and at times slightly too polite portrait of the President from a young man to the leader of the free world. It's one that I doubt he would've made in exactly the same manner in the early 1990's, although he managed to make one of the finest and most underrated films of his career with his masterful biopic about Richard Nixon, yet this time, running just under two hours, W. is also one of his most succinct fact-based works.

Independently financed long before a studio was on board to distribute, Stone and his longtime collaborator and Wall Street scripter Stanley Weiser decided around Christmas of 2007 that "if we didn't do the Bush movie at that moment, it wouldn't have been made, not for a long time." Striving for the "long-shot chance of getting W. out before the election," Stone wanted to fight against his belief noted in the release that "attention spans in this era, particularly as to history, seem to have the shelf life of a fruit fly."

While it's sure to divide critics and audiences, no matter which political party you're affiliated with or what you think of the man himself, Stone and Weiser managed to do the impossible of reading every single book available on the man himself as well as the Presidency and made the decision early on not to cover his entire life or every event during the eight years he served (and continues to serve) as Commander-in-Chief, specifically "focusing on that crucial era between October 2001 and March 2003, when he finally went to war with Iraq." Intriguingly Stone continued that, "not much was known about the Presidency during the 2000-2004 period because the Presidency was veiled and propagandized. But after 2004 there seems to have been increasing scholarship into the inner workings of the Bush Administration."

While the focal point is undoubtedly Iraq, W. does disappoint slightly (perhaps due to its hasty production) in not including more on not just the controversial, hot-button topic of the 2000 election as well as Hurricane Katrina, yet possibly this-- along with the curious neglect of the days following 9/11-- may have been because Stone either felt that Bush had already been so much in the media spotlight that we knew it all so well or that it's been covered before such as in Spike Lee's Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke.

Further citing the even-handedness of the screenplay, Jeffrey Wright (who quietly gives one of the film's best performances in an Oscar worthy turn as Colin Powell) cited that W. is much like Stone's World Trade Center "which had a similar type of balance and sophisticated tone," and Brolin who initially turned the project down both due to the subject and Stone's "very controversial reputation," instead discovered the screenplay left him "taken aback, moved... impassioned, really, because I was saddened by it. And above all, I identified with it."

Although it chronicles his young wild days surviving frat initiation at Yale, drinking and driving, bar brawling and rebelling against the family political dynasty until he became a born again Evangelical Christian at the age of 40, sobered up and went into the family business for himself, at its heart, W. takes a cue from the Greek tragedies cited by Stone in presenting the never-ending tug of war and battle for love and respect that occurs between fathers and sons. Whether he's feeling like the black sheep next to his picture-perfect brother Jeb or being told off repeatedly by his father (portrayed by James Cromwell) that he's deeply disappointed him, in depicting W's life story, we find out that what perhaps drove him more than anything was trying to prove his worth to his father.

While daddy-issue tales are nothing new and it's hardly the only individual who held sway over our 43rd president, it's a more relatable and humanistic approach to the man where the time line and the film's three distinct acts are all mixed together as we see the new version of the Bush family in his Presidency of others who may have wielded their power more than they should've in steering the leader in certain directions. Rounding out the cast we witness Richard Dreyfuss' wicked turn as Dick Cheney, Toby Jones' geeky, off-in-the-shadows Karl Rove, Scott Glenn's Donald Rumsfeld, Thandie Newton's Condoleeza Rice, Bruce McGill's George Tenet, Wright's Colin Powell, Stacy Keach's Earle Hudd, Rob Corddry's Ari Fleischer, Ellen Burstyn's Barbara Bush, and nice support by Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush.

While the ads and marketing strategy have seemed to posture the film as a straight comedy and indeed there are some truly hilarious moments pulled right from actual events, more than that, it's a heartbreaking tragedy that goes beyond its initial SNL like characterizations that first kept me at an arm's length early on (especially as audience members laughed throughout Thandie Newton's first entire speech as Condi) and during Brolin's earliest scenes. And admittedly no doubt there will be much debate afterward over whether or not Stone went far enough or created a worthwhile enough portrait to justify its being made before the President has even ended his term in office (and regarding both issues-- I find I'm still torn). Not to mention, tons of discussion will ensue regarding whether it will have any resonant impact in the upcoming election as there were a few walkouts of bored young voting age attendees who may have learned far more about just how and why the war was waged if they'd adjusted their frame of mind from the promised "broad comedy" to the drama that surrounds the events.

Was it rushed? My, my, my yes as I felt like Stone was censoring himself in a few places and the overwhelming importance of the picture still seems to weigh heavily as the press release revealed that Stone's in the process of creating a website that "will include all the anecdotes and are mentioned in the film, their source and the rationale for how, why, and when we used them." Of course, all sources should be cited but this isn't the type of action one would've expected him to have taken years ago and sometimes it seems as though he reeled in his true intentions so much that there were a few loose threads that seemed to hang off the edge of the screen at times but politics aside and just as a film, it's an intimate, high quality and revealing look at a complicated man told in a way none of us were expecting.

While I predict it will do big business during its opening weekend given W's disastrous approval rating and an American population so tired of politics as usual, the true test of Stone's film will be if viewers are able to remain objective when presented not with the straight satire they were hoping but a very humane approach about an overwhelmingly controversial, morally and emotionally trying Presidency and war-- the results of which we're all suffering globally every day. Just like Stone's World Trade Center, it may be a little too soon to view with any real perspective since the wounds haven't yet healed (and they possibly never will) but cinematically I applaud the wonderfully executed effort and above all its fearless cast.