As a journalist, Oliver Stone doesn’t have his five W’s quite in order when it comes to his investigation of George W. Bush. The “who” gets high marks, particularly in the performance of Josh Brolin as the title initial. More than imitating a person, Brolin embodies a process, the transformation of a black sheep fuck-up into a fuck-up who is the most powerful person in the world. He never attains the stature of hero or villain; neither does he ever achieve the kind of self-consciousness that can mean redemption (even for those born again).
VIDEO: The trailer for W.
But he is a likable guy who’s trying to do good despite his limitations. Maybe it’s because Sarah Palin has put the bar so low, but this Bush seems to have credibility, and he evokes sympathy. Not understanding, however — the “why” is never answered.
Partly that’s because Stone’s film appears to be a quickie job, like a celebrity biography rushed to press to capitalize on a scandal before the notoriety can go cold. It’s a pastiche, with brilliant moments and leaden clunkers in equal number, uncertain in tone and point. Holding it together is Brolin’s mastery of his character’s uncomprehending drive and certainty.
His W. starts out as a Delta Kappa initiate naked in a vat of ice and being force-fed vodka by frat brothers at Yale in 1966. Cut to post-9/11 and he’s the 43rd president, presiding over a cabinet meeting in the White House as his speechwriters and advisers struggle with the phrase that would eventually become “Axis of Evil.” The room looks like a Halloween party where you try to guess what actor is playing which disgraced administration member. There’s Toby Jones in an uncanny likeness of Karl Rove, Thandie Newton uncomfortable as Condoleezza Rice, Jeffrey Wright as Colin “Party Pooper” Powell nay-saying his colleagues’ bellicose certainties, and a creepily convincing Richard Dreyfuss lurking in the shadows as the inevitable Dick Cheney, the puppet master — or enabler.
How did we get from point A to point W? It’s all the fault of his dad (James Cromwell), Stone implies. The years fly by — 1971, 1977, 1986 — as “Junior” blows off career opportunities and drinks hard and gets called on the carpet by Poppy again and again to hear the old man make invidious comparisons to his brother Jeb, and to tell his prodigal son how deeply disappointed he is. W. needs a new father — why not God? So he gets sober and becomes governor and then president, because God has told him he needs to save the world.