The biggest strength of Oliver Stone's "W." is that as I was watching it I had no idea just who this movie was intended for, so you can bring into and take from it just about whatever you want to about our current ruler.
The second biggest strength is Josh Brolin's portrayal of George W. Bush himself, but we'll get to much more on that later. First, a breakdown of what you'll see and what you won't in this mostly successful portrait of power.
After a rapid but not particularly mean-spirited run-through of W.'s missing years (you never see, for example, the man snort coke in daddy's White House or anywhere else), Stone moves quickly to his main focus here, W.'s leadership of the Iraq War.
And this is when his flick is at its strongest, giving a real sense of palace intrigue as nearly all his players disappear into their characters to the point that you almost think you're watching a documentarian's portrait (with the sore exception of Thandie Newton, who we'll also be hearing much more about later.) My favorite moment came as the decision was made to go to war - as the big boys are making the final call, our "decider" sinks into the shadows and seats himself beside Toby Jones' Karl Rove, a subtle moment a younger Stone would never have been able to attain.
But in this stretch and elsewhere you also sense what's most noticeably missing - any of the flights of fancy that made his earlier presidential flicks and other movies so much fun. When they do come here, as in W.'s dream sequences on the Texas Ranger's ballfield and a very ill-conceived one near the end involving daddy, they just seem jarring and take away from the otherwise tight story Stone is telling. I read in the New York Times that he once conceived another dream in which W. was flying on a magic carpet and raining bombs over Baghdad. As silly as that would have been, I still would have loved to have seen it make the final cut.
And after setting up a very plausible case that many of W.'s actions regarding the war and other business are motivated in large part by his daddy issues (and Stone gets a huge assist here from a sensational performance from James Cromwell as Bush the elder), he completely omits the biggest gift and burden that "poppy" bequeathed to his son: The presidency itself. I would have gladly given Mr. Stone another half hour or so to see what he had to say about the fact that if daddy's hatchet man - James Baker - hadn't intervened in Florida, W. would probably never have become president at all. That subject is completely brushed over here, but if you want to get a workmanlike but solid taste of it, Netflix HBO's "Recount" (and keep your eyes on Laura Dern, who just nails the dippy Katherine Harris to a tee.)
But what makes Stone's flick mostly work so well is Josh Brolin, who dives so completely into the role of W. that you never for a minute think you're watching anyone but our leader. He nails it so perfectly that you can read his performance just about any way you want to. While many will see Stone and Brolin's largely sympathetic portrait of W. as a strong leader who follows his convictions, many others (me included) will see an arrogant, more than slightly intellectually challenged and ultimate dangerous man. The fact that you can read it so many ways is exactly why you'll be hearing Mr. Brolin's name on Oscar night.
Cromwell is also exceptional as poppy, but another word of praise is in order for my favorite of the supporting players, Stacy Keach. He makes his first appearance about half way in as the preacher W. turns to after he is born again, and Keach gets to deliver the key speech about Christian love that makes (for me, at least) the crux of Stone's ultimate but subtly made point. How much you think W. has followed this teaching will inform your assessment of the man, and Keach just sells it perfectly.
And, finally, it brings me no pleasure at all to state that Thandie Newton turned in the single worst performance I've seen in all of 2008 with her "portrayal" of Condoleezza Rice. I've had a major thing for Ms. Newton ever since "Flirting," a charming little Aussie flick in which her knee socks just drove me (and Noah Taylor) wild (and for another flick that she just smolders her way through, I highly recommend Bernardo Bertolucci's "Besieged.") I think it's this addiction to her sheer physical beauty that has blinded me over the years to the fact that she really just can't act a lick, which is on blatant display here. Her attempt to capture the nature of Ms. Rice is the perfect example of simple imitation rather then interpretation, and it's almost as bad as Frank Caliendo's take on W. (which, because I love baseball almost as much as our president does, I've had to watch what seems like 10,000 times by now.)
As a last challenge, I wonder if there's anyone out there who likes the president more than I do who found that Stone had any kind of axe to grind with the man in this flick. In his public remarks, the director has certainly disparaged W., but his movie portrayal is about as close to fair and balanced as I could have expected, and almost as entertaining too. Peace out.