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Review: 'W.' slapdash, but surprisingly thoughtful

  • Story Highlights
  • "W." has some nice scenes, good performance by Josh Brolin as President Bush
  • Oliver Stone's movie suffers in its cheap father-son psychology, however
  • Movie may emerge a curio, but has some power anyway
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- The commercials for Oliver Stone's latest, "W.," would have us believe the controversial director has given "Junior" -- as his father, George H.W. Bush, insists on calling him -- a roasting.

Josh Brolin gives a fine performance as George W. Bush in "W."

The ads play up the attack angle many people might prefer to see right now: "Dubya" the boob and the drunk, ascending to the highest office in the land as if by birthright, only to discover that he's in way over his head.

Fair enough. That side of George W. Bush is there on screen, particularly in those episodes that center on Junior's younger days. At that time, it will surprise no one to hear, he conducted himself with the dignity and decorum of a merchant seaman on shore leave.

But "W." also occasionally gets at something deeper. If Stone came to bury the president, he winds up casting him as an unlikely underdog, the younger son apparently incapable of maintaining an honorable family's traditions, always coming up short in his father's cold, judgmental eyes. Video Watch why Stone wanted to put the film out now »

Played with good-ol'-boy charm and a kind of bewildered, barely suppressed panic by "No Country for Old Men" star Josh Brolin, Bush the young man is a people person who struggles to articulate his thoughts largely because he doesn't seem to have many.

When his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), tells him she's a librarian, he grimaces -- "Uh-oh" -- and hopefully dredges up a conservative treatise as evidence of some basic literacy. Laura likes him anyway. It's hard not to.

And Stone is more sympathetic than expected. Even after W. quits drinking and finds God, the haughty and patrician George H.W. (James Cromwell) is uncomfortable with his son's born-again Christianity and advises him to steer clear of politics. It's meant as a kindness, but it's another twist of the knife in Dubya's heart, and Stone (and Brolin) don't let you forget it.

It's debatable whether this dollar-book Freud tells us more about the president or about Oliver Stone, but it's an insight -- if a mundane one -- into a subject who may not be complex enough to justify a multifaceted portrait.

Stone's primary interest in Bush 43 -- again, no surprise -- is to examine the motivations for the invasion of Iraq. (Stone probably never imagined that Iraq would suddenly have declined in importance during these waning days of the Bush administration -- and "W." didn't begin filming until May, either.) The film begins in the Oval Office as the president and his inner sanctum kick around the right words for his imminent State of the Union address. "The Axis of Hatred?" suggests someone.

These scenes -- which unfold in parallel with the flashbacks -- are more cutting and compelling than the biographical sequences, in the jaundiced, cynical way of contemporary satire. It's politics as burlesque (Bush laying the groundwork on a fly-swept Texan stroll with his closest advisers -- but somehow getting lost in his own backyard), with a mounting body count in the background.

While Cromwell doesn't deign to affect Bush 41's vague, nasal speech patterns, Stone has assembled a Cabinet that could certainly pass muster for the real thing in a dimly lit wax museum: Scott Glenn as the asinine, gung-ho Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld; Thandie Newton, transformed into an unreasonably eager-to-please Condoleezza "Condi" Rice; Jeffery Wright, looking dyspeptic as Colin Powell; Toby Jones as the calculating Karl Rove; and Richard Dreyfuss, outstanding as Dick Cheney, the real brains behind the throne, affectionately known as "Vice."

If W. goes to Baghdad because Daddy didn't, it's Vice who spells out the realpolitik in the movie's most riveting scene, a long and acrimonious Cabinet debate that dissects the issue from every angle and almost justifies the film's existence on its own.

Political junkies who have read the right books and seen the relevant documentaries won't find any true revelations here, and ordinary moviegoers may find the treatment too even-handed, even a little humdrum. There is scarcely a hint of the impending economic meltdown -- though Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser might say they predicted that nightmare 20 years ago in "Wall Street."

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Premature -- right? -- and half-formed, "W." could have used some of that film's energy and anger. But it has its moments, one of the finest at the conclusion: George W. Bush alone in the outfield, waiting for a catch that doesn't come. He hasn't dropped the ball just yet, but he's lost sight of it somewhere between the floodlights and the darkness, and he's very much afraid he might go the same way. It's a haunting, sobering image that speaks volumes.

"W." is rated PG-13 and runs 129 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.

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