Anyone who saw Nixon knows that Oliver Stone probably wasn't planning on doing a hatchet job on George W. Bush in his latest film. Stone seeks to understand his subjects, not forgive or excoriate them. However, anyone who saw Nixon may find that W., while a solid film, suffers by comparison.
The film cuts between Bush's first term and the road that led him there. It's a fascinating story. The family fuck-up becomes the 43rd President of the United States. If you were to sell it as fiction it would be a comedy (and the film is very, very funny at times). It's also an archetype, in Stone's interpretation. The black sheep, trapped beneath his father's shadow, seeks to win his approval by besting him.
This paradigm produces the film's weakest moments. The screenplay, by Wall Street scribe Stanley Weiser, relies on routine father/son conflict patter that wouldn't be interesting except for the fact that it's being spoken by Presidents. Not helping matters any is a sentimental score which, even if it's being ironically saccharine, is too much.
When it comes to politics, however, the screenplay crackles, with back room debates over everything from the Iraq War to the invention of the term "Axis of Evil." Rich monologues remind you of what made Wall Street so compelling.
The performances are top notch, though at first there's an almost inevitable SNL effect of perceiving impersonation instead of performance. Richard Dreyfuss however, leaves this perception in the dust more than most, fully embodying Dick Cheney. James Cromwell, on the other hand, takes a completely different tack, making no effort whatsoever to impersonate Bush Senior. He doesn't need to do Bush because in Stone's depiction, Bush is the archetypal patriarch-that-cannot-be-pleased so Cromwell just does that. Ironically, this approach makes for one of the strongest performances in the film.