Stone’s ‘W.’ unique portrait of a president

Joe Cramer

Controversial director Oliver Stone’s latest film “W.,” a unique reflection on the life and career of America’s 43rd president George W. Bush, is surprising in several ways.

It is surprising that the film humanizes its titular character rather than demonizing him.

It is surprising how apolitical the film is, explaining Bush’s inadequacies as a leader more from a tragic and psychological standpoint than from a critical political one.

Most of all, it is surprising that the typically outspoken and incendiary Stone ultimately refuses to come away with any significant judgment on one of the most polarizing and significant presidencies in American history.

Make no mistake: This is not the controversial and politically charged film everyone was expecting from Stone.

The life and presidency of Bush is re-imagined as the result of a dysfunctional father-son relationship, and the film plays like a modern Greek tragedy.

While it ultimately disappoints, aspects of “W.” are done quite masterfully and hint at the greatness that could have been achieved, given the talent assembled.

Several performances are exceptional, most notably those of Josh Brolin as “Dubya” and Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney.

Brolin, who has certainly sealed his position as an A-list star with this performance, carefully avoids pure mimicry and caricature in his portrayal of the oft-ridiculed president.

While mastering his mannerisms and speech better than any “SNL” performer, he delves into the president’s psyche and reaches an unexpected level of emotional depth and angst.

With the help of Stanley Weiser’s fascinating script, Brolin accomplishes a feat that many would have considered impossible: he makes Bush a sympathetic figure.

Brolin embodies his role so well that it appears as if the president himself is on screen.

In one scene, where adviser Karl Rove briefs him before a debate, Brolin absolutely nails the mixture of bravado and subtle insecurity that has come to define the president’s appearance.

Dreyfuss similarly avoids the temptation to fall into a caricature of Cheney.

He masters the stiff mannerisms and monotone voice of the vice president but also adds new dimension to the character by subtly making Cheney a menacing and domineering presence.

His stealthy performance contributes to the film’s success as a sympathetic portrait of the president, but Stone sadly underuses him.

As such, one of the most interesting dynamics in the film remains underdeveloped, preventing the film from actualizing its immense potential.

However, not all of the performances are as effective.

Thandie Newton is distracting as Condoleezza Rice, resorting to pure caricature with no depth to redeem it.

She may have mastered her mannerisms, but the performance feels like it belongs on an “SNL” skit.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, James Cromwell doesn’t even try as George H.W. Bush.

He caters to the needs of the script, but fails to embody any of the former president’s traits.

“W.” only succeeds as a sympathetic portrait of a widely reviled president.

The most interesting aspects of the film deal with the inferiority complex that Bush develops as a result of a turbulent relationship with his father.

Stone’s general hypothesis is that Bush became involved with politics for all the wrong reasons.

He did not want to improve society or to lead the country he loved to new levels of greatness; he wanted to become president to impress his father, whom he felt he disappointed.

Ironically, to the film’s detriment, this is Stone’s most mature directorial effort to date.

He is surprisingly even-handed and conventional, reigning in the conspiracy theories and wild assumptions that characterized his other political films “JFK” and “Nixon.”

Unfortunately, the movie is disappointingly conventional as a result.

Aside from the interesting psychoanalysis of Bush’s character, Stone does not attempt to push the envelope any further, showing the viewers nothing they could not read on their own.

His other political films have been visceral, surreal and captivating, always offering a fresh take on periods that have come to define modern American history. By comparison, “W.” falls flat.

The film deals with an extremely relevant subject matter with too much levity and detachment.

It fails to move beyond portraying Bush in a new light, which, while interesting, does not make the film meaningful.

Also, despite being a lengthy 131 minutes, it feels incomplete and ends too abruptly.

As it stands, “W.” should have been much, much more.