W. Dir. Oliver Stone

[Lionsgate; 2008]

W. the film is surprisingly less polarizing than W. the man. This is due, in part, to a differentiation of character that director Oliver Stone attempts to explore. Namely, can W. the man be examined separately from W. the President? For over two hours, Stone obsesses over this distinction and attempts to humanize a man who is described by his wife Laura Bush (Elizabeth Banks) as a “devil in a white hat.”

The towering figures of U.S. politics in the last eight years are all present, as the President and his aides set the country on course for war. Despite surface efforts to stick to the facts, Stone can’t resist the urge to use the cinematic devices at his disposal to suffuse the film with his disapproval with the War in Iraq. Following Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, for example, the film turns into a five-minute montage of the insurgency’s commencement through archival footage, giving the distinct sense that there was always more than meets the eye in Bush’s public life. But even here, Bush is portrayed with an endearing capacity, looking more like a wounded child in a den of hyenas than the mastermind of one of the United States' greatest blemishes.

The film delivers some excellent performances in challenging roles, any of which could have descended into an SNL-style parody, but instead create an appropriate atmosphere to dissect President Bush (Josh Brolin). What is most surprising is that the film is a strikingly straightforward biopic. Even the roles of Karl Rove (Toby Jones), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), and Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) are played as though they could be examined with the same exacting detail given to Bush. It would be a misrepresentation, however, to say that the film is not, at least in part, a comedy. It is funny. But Bush is funny. Indeed, it would be a mischaracterization if the film wasn’t rife with Bushisms.

Interestingly, W. spends most of its runtime delving into Bush’s alcoholism and rocky relationship with his parents, played by Ellen Burstyn and James Cromwell. The fulcrum point of the film is a touching scene, where Bush has sworn off drinking and has a candid conversation with Reverend Earle Hudd following an AA meeting. He speaks to the Reverend about a terrible weight on his soul that he can’t seem to shake. When he's told that some things can't be bought with power, it reveals the vulnerability of a man who was born into power. This moment informs the transition from the rebellious youth, whose familial status could wash away any misdeeds, to the born again Christian who galvanized the religious Right in 2000. Scenes like these actually make the film work, making a man characterized as both an unshakable power and a bumbling fool appear vulnerable and at times likable.

With W., Stone creates a fairly balanced portrait, but it certainly isn't because he obscures his politics; the film doesn't hide Stone’s political persuasions. Detailing the script as an unbiased portrayal would negate the differentiation between an unbiased portrait and a humanizing study, yet that’s precisely why the film succeeds. This overt bias makes the audience more fully aware of the separation of Bush's personal and public history, as well as Stone's cinematic rhetorical tricks. Although it disjoints and slightly blurs the film, this schism allows the President to become the protagonist, successfully humanizing the most demonized person in America.

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