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W

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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If you’re looking for a vicious attack on the 43rd president of the United Sates, or a non-stop joke fest at his expense, you’ll have to keep looking.  Oliver Stone’s latest effort, “W” does neither of these things, opting for an exploration and insight into the man’s background, motives and mindset.


“W” documents some pivotal events in the life of George W. Bush, (Josh Brolin) from his fratboy days at Yale up to and including a recent press conference where he was stumped by a question asking him what he thought his mistakes were.

In between, there are scenes of a hard drinking, womanizing Bush, restless and unfit for any career it seems, apparently unprepared to get along in life.  A continual disappointment to Poppy, the much more worldly George H. W. Bush, (James Cromwell), W floats from job to job during much of his 20’s and 30’s, irresponsible and unfulfilled.  He’s never far away from alcohol and takes advantage of the privileges that come from being born into a well connected family.

Sequential flashbacks show us how Bush met future wife, librarian Laura Welch (Elizabeth Banks) at a barbecue, complete with a puzzling shot of a woman’s sandaled foot stepping on an ear of corn.  I know Stone must have had something in mind; I just don’t know what it could be.  There follows a religious epiphany in the woods and an abrupt farewell to booze.  Bush is reborn as an evangelical Christian.  Then Poppy becomes Vice President and the road to Bush’s own coronation…er…inauguration seems a distinct possibility.

After a failed bid for a congressional seat, Bush runs for Governor of Texas.  Hey, little brother Jeb’s doing it (Jason Ritter) in Florida, and Poppy always liked him better.  In a reversal of fortune, Bush wins the election and for the first time, his father’s approval.  The elder Bush summons W to Washington to help run his presidential campaign.  We all know how that turned out, but it was beneficial for the younger Bush to get noticed in the right Washington circles.  In came the new millennium and with it, a brand new powerful, dangerously sincere “Decider.”

The most fascinating scenes depict Bush in his cabinet meetings, where he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but certainly the most vehement.  Comfortable with power, not above patronization, and with the Almighty on his side, King George the Anointed courts those who agree with him and help make unpalatable, illegal and troublesome issues seem like divine mandates.

Take the invasion of Iraq for instance. Bush whips up his team into a hawk-like fervor while lone dissenter, Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is mildly scolded by Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton).  Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) has oil derricks reflected in his profit-driven eyes and thin-lipped smirk.  CIA Director George Tenet (Bruce McGill) looks bewildered and timid as the Commander in Chief calls him Georgie Boy.  Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) wears a perpetual grimace but can be counted on to helm the offensive while Karl Rove (Toby Jones) has a strategy for every constitutional assault.  Bush routinely exhorts his think tank to rationalize the rash and condone the unconscionable.  9/11 is mentioned briefly as a catalyst for U.S. aggression in Iraq, but the emphasis stays firmly on Bush and Co. in their attempts to force feed war to an unwilling American public.

Intermittent dream sequences show Bush in the middle of an empty baseball field (he owned the Texas Rangers) about to catch the last “out” of the World Series.  It is here that the leader of the free world seems most content and wistful, as if this were the life he’d really like to lead – except that one needs demonstrated skill for such an endeavor.  So it’s back to the Oval Office for junior, where it seems, requirements are less stringent.

Director Oliver Stone admits to taking dream sequence liberties (another has the elder Bush threatening to kick his son’s ass in the Oval Office) but declares the rest of the script to have been meticulously researched.  Screenwriter Stanley Weiser (Wall Street) strives for the ordinary and the factual.  If humor ensues, it is allowed to occur naturally, without forced SNL scenarios. What results is a surprisingly fair portrayal, with Stone more interested in getting into Bush’s head than knocking him upside it.  That’s for us to do (or refrain from doing) as we see fit.  Stone’s just the guide.

Josh Brolin is superb in the title role, losing himself in the speech and mannerisms, and playing Bush with a confidence that erases all hint of acting.  James Cromwell is physically wrong for the role of the elder Bush, but brings an integrity that somewhat mitigates that bit of miscasting.  Thandie Newton portrays Condoleezza Rice as a constipated arthritic, with lockjaw enunciations and stiff-necked caution – a bundle of affectations that make her acting too apparent.  Richard Dreyfuss’ Cheney is amazingly lifelike, down to the sneer, and perhaps more animated than the actual Veep.

Ellen Burstyn’s tiny role as Bush matriarch Barbara does not showcase her talent at all, only how artificial she looks in plus-size padding.  Elizabeth Banks’ Laura stays firmly in the background of events in her husband’s life, much like the First Lady herself.

“W” proves that even a Stone can mellow to the point of not having to hurl itself at glass houses, no matter how tempting.  A restrained hand and the ability to show his subject as a flawed man full of pride, arrogance, confusion, sincerity, and stubborn resolve have made for an unexpectedly even-handed and subdued portrayal of the man who came to be known by one initial.  Did Stone succeed in his historic endeavor?

You be the Decider.