Every filmmaker has a point of view. Some go so far as to call it an agenda, others just call it a vision. But every film is seen through a director’s eyes—how can it not be? They are telling us a story with their words, their interpretation of that story. What they leave out, what they leave in, is up to them. And what we take away from it—is up to us.
Such has always been the audience’s relationship with Oliver Stone. Perhaps second only to Michael Moore as America’s foremost issue-oriented filmmaker, Stone has given us his own angled view on many difficult subjects, including Vietnam, Wall Street, 9/11, Nixon, serial murderers, the Kennedy assassination and now, a biography of an unpopular sitting President. Unprecedented? Absolutely. Incendiary? You would think. Controversial? You would imagine. Riveting? Not so much.
W. is, to be honest, kinda boring. I was expecting—hoping—that Stone’s look at the rise of the 43rd President of the United States would offer some glimpse into the inner life of the mind, spirit and soul of the man who has brought unprecedented ignominy and bravado to the highest office in the land, while famously going from being one of the most popular to one of the most unpopular presidents in the shortest period of time in history. Love him or hate him, there surely is fodder there for exploration, because it takes some gift, whether it be smarts, luck, personality, magnetism, connections, or just brute motivation and determination to achieve such monumental success in the cutthroat world of American politics. However, instead of giving us anything meaty to chew on, Stone delivers just a run-of-the-mill biopic that offers neither insight nor motivation into the man nor his ambitions. He is instead portrayed simply as a ne’er–do-well who changes occupations on a whim, makes decisions for no apparent reason and things happen as if by snapping his fingers. Maybe this is the vision Stone wants to present, but it comes across as bored storytelling rather than a Machiavellian commentary and it was lost on me.
No, I am not a fan of George W. Bush, but now that I know he is leaving soon, I would have been open to perhaps understanding the man—maybe it would help me swallow the past 8 years a bit better if I understood the appeal. But instead I left with the same picture I came in with. Either the water really is that shallow, or nobody here did any real diving.
Stone does a better job at revealing the puppetry behind the President, notably Karl Rove and Dick Cheney (big surprise), both performed well by Toby Jones and Richard Dreyfus. The best performance of the film is delivered by Jeffrey Wright as Gen. Colin Powell. Wright is one of America’s most underappreciated actors and one day will get the recognition he deserves. Josh Brolin plays Bush serviceably, and is in constant motion, which sometimes makes it hard to watch, but he captures the child-like innocence and naivete that permeates the character and the man. This is a man who is lost in his own world for most of his life, unsure of where he fits, but is utterly at ease in his own skin, and Brolin walks that line well, never playing the clown or the fool that it would seem so tempting to do.
One glaring disaster here is Thandie Newton’s portrayal of Condoleeza Rice, which is utterly laughable and I would call the comic relief of the film if I didn’t think it was intended to be so. Newton spends almost all of her time onscreen sitting quietly, making faces, and when she does speak, she seems simply to be doing an impersonation, almost mocking the real person. She is the only one in the film who seems to be impersonating the person they are playing and it is glaring. Oliver Stone has a reputation for not treating his female characters with dignity and the pattern continues here.
Bottom line is that there just isn’t anything new here to say or see. I didn’t need to love the guy—that could never happen—but I was hoping to know him better. Two hours later, I don’t. And I don’t care. So something didn’t work. Don’t know about your agenda, Oliver, but I think your vision needs some glasses.