I had the same issues with Oliver Stone’s W. that I do with every biopic. As virtually every feature film biography attempts to do the job of a book, they inevitably fall into the same trap: they become highlights reels that merely illustrate key moments in a real-life figure’s life, spanning decades. With a few exceptions (American Splendor, Control), any narrative throughline is impossible; meaning, there is no story.
Stone attempts to tie together his fragmented examination of the life of George W. Bush with the theme of his relationship with his father, George H.W. Bush. In this view, Junior both loved and hated his father, and both wanted to impress him and to prevail where he perceived that he failed (it’s clear now even to this staunch pacifist and Democrat that Bush the elder was wise to not extend the first Gulf War into a nationbuilding exercise in Iraq).
Screenwriter Stanley Weiser chooses the conception of the phrase “Axis of Evil” as the starting point, and ends the film with the infamous press conference in which the arrogant Bush was unable to name any mistakes he may have made in office. Stone flashes back many times to Bush’s prior life as a trust fund wastrel, but skips over almost everything that I would define as defining moments: becoming a born again Christian, deciding to run for president, announcing to his staff that they are going to war in Iraq (it’s a matter of record Bush said “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.”) and of course, September 11 itself.
The most obvious failure of biopics is that they typically become opportunities for famous actors to do impressions of historical figures. In this case, the subjects are so fresh that many of them are still in office and on television every night now, so the danger is that W. could come too close to the easy satire of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.
That said, Josh Brolin is excellent as George W. Bush, in a performance that captures many of the man’s peculiar tics but doesn’t come across as a forced caricature. Similarly, Richard Dreyfus is remarkably restrained as Dick Cheney, a role that many other actors would have been tempted to use as an excuse to chew the Oval Office scenery. But unfortunately, Thandiwe Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) struck me as the only cast member doing a forced impression.
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