Anybody paying attention to domestic politics and world affairs over the past eight years will bring a lot of mind-baggage into a screening of Oliver Stone's W. It's a bit unsettling at first. Every real-life character - from President Bush to Ari Fleischer to George Tenet - have body doubles up on screen, so fighting off the urge to giggle at impersonations may take some discipline. (This fades quickly. However, Thandie Newton's Condoleezza Rice remains painfully cartoonish throughout.) The film rolls on as a series of dramatic highs (80% approval rating after 9/11... how bizarre is that!), and lows, back-and-forth between well-known signposts of George W. Bush the President and his life prior to that.
It's uncommon to have a biopic hit theaters when the subject is a figure still so prominent in our daily lives. Yet as biopics go, W. is, itself, fairly uncommon. Equal parts historical fiction and father/son melodrama, W. sufficiently sells itself to a freshly ideologically divided America in the midst of a Sarah Palin obsessed media culture. Like Tina Fey's nonpartisan spoofing of that Republican Vice Presidential nominee, Stone gives the audience plenty of the Bush knocking they crave without spinning off into that unbearable red-fanged lunatic fringe territory.
With age, Oliver Stone has become humble. His fervor to cram info-messages down our throats has softened with his maturity and a calmer, more artistic approach to his subjects has emerged. (Phedon Papamichael's emotionally tuned-in cinematography is some of 2008's best.) Because of this, W. feels like Oliver Stone's most personal film in years. And while it's clear that Stone is anti-Bush, the director has little interest in playing puppeteer for an audience of Bush-haters simply wanting more of the "alright already" that they can get daily from their favorite cable shows and internet hangouts.
Indeed, the parts of W. which drag deepest are moments we've already been through ad infinitum: the pre-Iraq war room discussions, Karl Rove's string pulling, Bushisms, Dick Cheney domination, etc. Some of these scenes linger, grow tedious, and slow the film down, yet at film's end - W. is bookended by scenes of Bush at his favorite place, center field at Arlington Stadium - the significance of them is clear. It is Stone's intention to challenge viewers opinions of President Bush by running those common knowledge bumps up against a more human story of an ugly duckling "Jr." growing up in the shadow of George Bush Sr. and his more accomplished brother, Jeb.
In fact, Stone is most generous to George W. Bush when it comes to the origins of his born-again Christianity. Framed in between the lines of Bush's well-known battle with alcoholism, Stone portrays our president's return to god as a form of faith-through-therapy. Not just from alcohol but via the ego bruising inter-familial Bush clashes, Stone expresses sympathy for Bush when he bucks expectations and includes a scene of touching vulnerability between Bush and his preacher. Equally, Stone shows how Bush's overzealous evangelicalism bled over into his life decisions and political electioneering. (This running motif in W. bests the entirety of Bill Maher's worthless Religulous.)
It's that interpersonal battle, within Oliver Stone, of trying to understand George W. Bush that makes W. much more across-the-board approachable than one may have previously thought. The film isn't great, but it's a fascinating result from an extremely ambitious undertaking. Loathe it or love it (or neither), W. is a film that will work with whatever experiences you've had with this 43rd Presidency.
Part of the W. experience is seeing it in a full theater. Because there is plenty of red meat, certain scenes will set off the pack, howling as they congratulate themselves on their shared opinions. When a youthful, Lyndon Johnson lovin' Laura Bush (the great Elizabeth Banks) says to a pre-gubernatorial, Goldwater readin' George W. (Josh Brolin, also great), "You're a devil... a devil in a white hat!", the guy next to me snipped "yes, he sure is!" as if hoping to receive an "attaboy!" from the people around him when we all just wanted him to stop talking. (Are these the same people that clap on the treadmills at the gym when Jon Stewart gets out a good one-liner???... what is that?!?!?). Catharsis through cinema? It just very well may be. As we hit ad nauseam on electoral politics approaching November 4th, W. oddly makes for some appropriate and entertaining escapism.